Biting back beyond the soundtracks
by Jeremy Ohmes
If you’ve seen a heartstring-tugging comedy in the last 20 years, you’ve probably heard some Randy Newman songs. If you’ve seen a Disney movie in the last 15 years, you’ve definitely heard some Randy Newman songs — and you’ve probably listened to them more than a thousand times with your kids. The piano man with the slurry idiosyncratic voice has penned some of the most recognizable soundtracks for the silver screen, songs like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story; “That’ll Do” from Babe; “Our Town” from Cars; “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc., which won Newman an Oscar; and a number of tender love songs featured in movies like You’ve Got Mail, Meet the Parents, Forrest Gump, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and my personal favorite, Kangaroo Jack.
But for 40 years, Newman has had another side to his songwriting besides the confessional romantic movie montage anthems and the overplayed Disney ditties. He’s been one of the most misanthropic storytellers and political and social commentators to inhabit the post-’60s pop scene. His albums have never sold that much (he obviously lives off his soundtrack checks), but his biting wit and sardonic sense of humor have influenced several generations of songwriters, from John Lennon to Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits to Warren Zevon. Since his 1969 self-titled album, Newman has been composing a tongue-in-cheek world of outcasts, swindlers, misfits and screwballs and satirizing everything from yuppies (“I Love L.A.”) to religion (“God’s Song [That’s Why I Love Mankind]”) to the pointlessness of prejudice (“Short People,” his most misunderstood novelty hit). His world-weary voice and tender ivory tickles have tackled the bigotry of the South (“Rednecks”), the perils of stardom (“Lonely at the Top,” written for Frank Sinatra) and the absurdity of American foreign policy (“Political Science,” which is one of the most hilariously scathing critiques of nuclear proliferation ever penned: “Asia’s crowded, Europe’s too old / Africa’s far too hot and Canada’s too cold / South America stole our name / Let’s drop the big one / There’ll be no one left to blame us”).
Unfortunately, with his steady checks from Disney and the movie world, Newman only gives us these curmudgeonly commentaries once every 10 years as of late. His studio albums are few and far between these days, but thankfully the now-golden ager has graced us with a new collection of sly and cynical story songs set to Fats Domino-inspired shuffles and olden-day Hollywood scores. Harps and Angels sees the wrinkled raconteur commenting on age and America and looking more inward than he’s usually prone to do, but he still reels off a salty lampoon or two, namely against ol’ washed-up Dubya on “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” Eugene is the last stop on Newman’s 19-city tour, so catch him live before he’s locked down in Disney’s dungeon for another 10 years.
Randy Newman. 7:30 pm Saturday, Oct. 25. The Shedd • $30-$65.