Monday, January 21, 2013

We'll Get Wounded If We Stay


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Randy Newman, 12 Songs. This insinuating, Southern-fried suite from 1970 doesn't have the sweet sweep of Newman's astonishing debut, or the Gothic freak-show pathos of Good Old Boys, or the Olympian reach and range of Sail Away--in short, it's not the early-Newman masterpiece most likely to dazzle and delight an initiate into the Cult of Randy. At least, that's how it seemed when my friend Cinco Paul made his entire collection available for sampling; I glommed onto roughly a quarter of this dozen at the time, favoring the bigger gestures of the other records.

But once clued into Newman's unreliable-narrator shtick and acclimated to his old-school rhythms, this is now the record I return to with the most pleasure, I think because he's underplaying his hand--he's holding the ironies closer to the vest, and working on a smaller canvas, than in his more famous songs about God, race, and assorted American cities. The characterizations of misanthropes, stalkers, dupes, and losers here feel more open-ended, more matter-of-fact, less keyed to make a clever point or twist. As a result, the masks are that much more convincing. This really very often sounds like an honest-to-God counter-revolutionary record: the angry, disillusioned lament of a man who neither understands nor enjoys the liberated '60s. It really sounds like Newman's heart is in it, all of it--that he's found the parts of himself that resonate with these characters, as Jud Fry-ish and/or borderline sociopathic as they are.

It's also, perhaps not coincidentally, his most authentically bluesy record--the one that handily earns him that recent induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. There are real grooves here, particularly on a trio of chilling songs named for the women who are their subjects ("Suzanne," "Lucinda," "Rosemary"), and many of the songs sound more felt than shaped. The silly "Yellow Man" aside, he even outsources the racism (to a savvy Gordon/Revel cover, "Underneath the Harlem Moon"). The whole brilliant bad trip ends, appropriately enough, with a rambling but entirely on-point whimper of incomprehension, "Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues," which plays out the square-at-a-party comedy of "Mama Told Me Not To Come" to its logical extreme. We love you, indeed.

Comments:
Cinco Paul I'll have to give it another listen--I've always placed it below Sail Away and Good Old Boys myself.

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