August 7, 2008 / 7:54 PM / 10 years ago

Randy Newman eyes own ghosts on "Harps and Angels"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Randy Newman’s musical world has always been populated with unsavory characters — racists, rapists, sociopaths — and dark themes that often belied the songwriter’s gift for a compelling melody and a love for blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.

Musician Randy Newman performs during the Macworld Convention and Expo in San Francisco, California January 15, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

On his latest album, “Harps and Angels,” which was released earlier this week, he adds another element to his songs: his own, unadorned voice.

“I’ve been getting closer to writing things that could be called autobiographical,” Newman told Reuters. “I’m finding stuff closer to me than I used to.”

One example is the new song “Potholes,” about the songwriter’s failed attempt at baseball as a child and his father’s insistence on reliving the narrator’s moment of failure.

“That’s 100 percent the truth. I couldn’t have made that up,” Newman said.

The personalized songs represent a change of pace for Newman, whose biggest hit, “Short People,” was written in the voice of a bigot and was widely misunderstood to be Newman’s own feelings. But like many of his songs, Newman was writing with irony and in “Short People” looking at prejudice.

“I don’t worry about (being misunderstood) much anymore,” he said. “I always hated the word ‘irony,’ but it’s the only word I’ve ever been able to use to describe what I do. People are better about it now because there are more shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Office.’ The audience has gotten more sophisticated.”

While many of his songs may seem simple because of their wry titles, Newman’s work demand much from his audience. His 1968 debut album closes with a jaunty tune, “Davy the Fat Boy,” in which a mother asks the narrator to care for her obese son. The narrator obliges by parading him in a freak show.

After scoring a No. 1 pop hit in 1970 with Three Dog Night’s version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” his songwriting became even quirkier. One of his best known songs, “Sail Away,” is written in the voice of a salesman beckoning slaves aboard his ship bound for the Americas.

Likewise, the songs on “Harps and Angels” ask audiences to think. “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” attracted much attention in January 2007 when an edited version was published on the New York Times op-ed page as an alternative State of the Union address, comparing the Bush administration to the regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

The satirical tune “Piece of the Pie” laments the disparity of wealth between the rich and poor. In it, Newman addresses the issue from the perspective of the privileged, which not only makes the humor more honest, but more pointed as well.

As is typical of Newman, on “Harps and Angels” he has some fun at the expense of other music stars, including John (Cougar) Mellencamp, Jackson Browne and Bono, as foils to the greed that pervades society.

Outside of his songs, however, he is quick to praise their efforts.

“When Lyndon Johnson was president, there was this feeling that it was all going to work out,” he said. “Then this benign neglect kicked in. But Jackson kept going. He was still writing about nuclear power in the 1990s. I find something funny about it, and he’s to be admired because no one else is doing it.”

Newman’s music is delicately arranged, befitting other work of the Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer of film soundtracks such as “Toy Story,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Natural.” But he understands that his albums are not exactly standard fare.

“Ninety to ninety-five percent of (pop songs) have always been love songs. It’s a direct medium,” he said. “It’s a funny choice I made, whether it’s for psychological reasons or boredom, but I didn’t think I could keep writing love songs.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Steve Gorman

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