Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Classic Albums: Randy Newman's Sail Away

Some albums are just made for a quiet, dark November night, and Randy Newman's Sail Away is one of them. There is a melancholy aspect to its songs, even the darkly comedic numbers like "Burn On" and "Political Science." The former tells the tale of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire, which has Newman describing "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic" in a sardonic twist on descriptions of Paris as the City of Light. In "Political Science," as in many of his classic numbers, he takes on the personae of a hateful bigot in order to expose the stupidity of such people. (And yet so many people refuse to understand Newman's purpose, as when his one hit song "Short People" aroused controversy.) The song's narrator fantasizes about America nuking and colonizing the rest of the world as if such a thing would be a glorious lark.

As if that's not enough, the first side's last song is sung from the perspective of a son reminding his dying father that he taught him not to believe in an afterlife, and the second side ends with a song where God taunts suffering humanity for actually believing that He cares about their fate.

The first song, the title track, with its swelling strings and anthemic hooks might seem more cheerful on the surface, until you listen to the words. They are from the mouth of a slave ship captain on the coast of Africa promising his human cargo that their lives will be wonderful in America. This song, more than any other, assaults the myth of the American Dream and of the notion of America as a land of opportunity. (I won't get into much more detail on this song because Greil Marcus wrote about this much more ably than I could four decades ago.) Newman pretty much sets the tone for the whole album here; he is describing a world governed by cruelty, hatred, and suffering.

Newman provides another ironic twist in the second song, "Lonely at the Top," originally intended for Frank Sinatra. It tells the tale of a big star who seems completely blase about his fame and riches. On the one hand, it mocks the narcissism of celebrity, on the other, however, it points to a unfillable hole in the human soul. Instead of promising his listeners the possibility of God as that thing that can fill the hole, Newman ends the album with God laughing at the naivete of humanity. "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" has people of all faiths pleading to God for help and deliverance, and God tells the world that they're crazy to think that he cares. But he adds: "you really need me/that's why I love mankind." It's Ingmar Bergman set to music, and just as powerful as The Seventh Seal or Through A Glass Darkly.

Randy Newman has always been an acquired taste, and seems to arouse either devotion or revulsion. One of my friends has expressed his absolute distaste for Newman on multiple occasions; my wife pleads with me not to play his records when I throw them on the turntable. That seems awfully strange for a guy who delights the toddler set with soundtrack tunes for Pixar films, and speaks more to Newman's crooked way of singing his songs than anything else. True, on some songs he slurs and moans like a falling-down drunk trying to impersonate Ray Charles, but that's part of the reason why I like him so much.

But that voice is not his only voice, and at times he breaks from it to sing in a higher, more wistful register. My favorite sleeper track on Sail Away is "Dayton, Ohio 1903," where he employs that other voice to great, moving effect. It's quite a simple tune, the narrator asking to "sing a song of long ago/ when things were green/ and moving slow." It's less a lament for a simpler past than a reminder for people in the present that their lives will seem just as distant, remote, and quaint to their ancestors. What other songwriters are able to make that point, and make it so tunefully?

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