#268: Sail Away, Randy Newman
I’m a Millennial, so I know Randy Newman. I know him from Toy Story 1, 2, 3 & 4, A Bugs’ Life, Monsters, Inc., and Cars. I did NOT know he had a musical career before his life in Hollywood, so I had no idea what to expect. What I got is an album that’s just as heartfelt emotional as Toy Story 2.
First things first: The voice. I mean this in the nicest, most complimentary way possible, but he sounds like a Muppet. Like, a soulful, pitch-perfect, emotional Muppet. That’s a compliment! What that really means is that no one else sounds like him.
Since I associate Newman with cartoons, I was taken with the songs where he plays a character. “Lonely at the Top” casts him as a noirish villain in a tune that was originally written for Frank Sinatra, who died before he could get his hands on it. I’m sure that would have been amazing, but Randy Newman works his weird Muppet voice to sound world-weary and apathetic. “Memo to My Son” has him as a frustrated parent begging his son to get his sh*t together. My favorite character, though, was “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” A sweet society boy and a dancing grizzly bear prancing about town? What’s not to love?
But it isn’t all Disney movies and dancing bears. The RS blurb calls this Newman’s “meanest and funniest American portrait.” Just look at the opener “Sail Away,” which is on its face a pretty annoyingly optimistic portrait of America. But then you start listening to the lyrics a little more closely: Sing about Jesus and drink wine all day/It’s great to be an American. Is that what being an American is like, even in 1972? Then I read a Rolling Stone review that says the song presents “the American dream of a promised land as it might have been presented to black Africa in slave running days” and I got chills. You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree/You’re all gonna be an American. Oh my God. And “Political Science” is his answer to Dr. Strangelove, apparently — everyone hates America so let’s drop the big one and kill ’em all. Not what I expected from Mr. Toy Story.
But not every song about America is about our sordid past and piss-poor international relations. “Dayton, Ohio — 1903” paints a wistful picture of an American past that probably never quite existed, and “Burn On” depicts the very real pollution-fueled fire on the Cuyahoga River. America: Worthy of being both mocked and mythologized.
Then Randy Newman zooms out even further: He wants to sing about God, and not in a bouncing Pixar lamp kind of way. Sure, “He Gives Us All His Love” seems like a pretty simple song of praise, but keep in mind it was written for a satirical movie about giving up cigarettes. “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” is so dark it’s shocking, especially for 1972, five years before Billy Joel’s playful-but-still-controversial “Only The Good Die Young” was released. Newman plays a cruel God laughing at the gullibility of humanity, who beg him, “Lord, if you won’t take care of us/Won’t you please, please let us be?” It’s genuinely terrifying. (Side note, imagine if God actually has Randy Newman’s Muppet voice. I will be so uncomfortable.)
The emotional standout is “Old Man,” not to be confused with Neil Young’s song of the same name. I wasn’t expecting to sob, especially after the tune about the dancing bear, but boy, every time this song came on I was wrecked. Newman says goodbye to a dying father figure, laments that there’s no God, and then ends the song abruptly. It made my heart hurt.
The most famous track is “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” though odds are that you’re more familiar with Joe Cocker’s cover. I’ve never really listened to the lyrics but wow — he’s telling his lady friend to take all her clothes off except her hat, which is either sexy or hilarious, depending on what kind of hat she’s wearing. Cocker’s version is more fun and arguably makes more sense, but you can’t argue that Newman doesn’t give it his all.
All in all, I was expecting Disney+, and I got Waiting for Godot. Randy Newman will play at the end of the world.
Other Highlights: “Last Night I Had a Dream” has Newman talking about vampires over a blues guitar solo. I can actually think of several Pixar movies this would fit right in with.