Shame” signifies Return To Form—a silly love song and an endlessly sophisticated arrangement for a rich, saggin’-ass ol’ diddler. It saunters dark and dubious, pitting the hapless Newman against the answering ma chine of a wayward hoochie half his age and colored girls cribbed from Sylvia Robinson’s disco classic who step in to shame Randy every time he gets overheated. He begs. He mewls. He hollers. “Do you know what it feels like to get up in the middle of the night and have to sit down to take a piss?/You say you do/But I have my doubts, Missy.” Finally, he caves in. “Ya know,” he whispers as the tune fades out. “I have a Lexus now—come on home.”
“Sound familiar?” asks the re viewer from Fortune, in an issue whose cover story was “Why CEOs Fail,” the perfect alternative title for Newman’s best album in 25 years—a record about old-ass loathing and dislocation in America the Global. The joke of Bad Love‘s richest song, “The Great Nations of Europe”—which follows imperialism from the first hostile takeover on the shores of the Canary Islands to HIV sweeping the EU—is a chorus (“They’re gone/They’re gone/They’re really gone”) that (just for a second, intentionally or no) is writ ten to fool you into wondering who Randy’s lamenting, the indigenous peoples the Great Nations slaughtered or the downsizing nations themselves.
Empire used to be easy. It used to make sense. But today the old guy’s money doesn’t get him upscale pussy like it used to, the aging CEO’s two-martini moxie doesn’t get him the investors, and the gimlet-eyed crooner’s cynicism doesn’t get him street cred with the MP3 crowd the way it used to with the preyuppie intelligentsia. Bad Love is folk music from a guy who’s got quite a bead on the expectations of an almost exclusively alpha-male audience to which he hasn’t added 1000 young people in the last 20 years.
Young people (especially young women) approach Newman with a be mused resistance that often blurs into outright contempt, finding him self-satisfied, viciously reductive, and, most of all, cheesily maudlin and solipsistically misogynistic—a regressive prick with a glib, almost gleeful disregard for the lives and ethos of the little people whose perspectives he (mis)reads and exploits. He has be come, put plainly, the great asshole of American song. Couple that with a soundtrack career that’s made him the John Williams of hollow Americana, and you’ve got a lot to live down if you wanna compete with a postironic coolster like Tom Waits. And if Randy the fat cat doesn’t give a shit about competing with anybody, the Randy of 12 Songs, whose sympathetic, al most protopunk excavation of fuck-you-but-fuck-me-first alienation tropes led to some of the best antiliberal lampooning of hippie fallout, would have hung himself on his own turtleneck if he’d foreseen an audience split between upper-middlebrow aesthetes and the graying folkoisie. Especially in an era in which the Newman-esque—as heard in Rufus’s Van Dyke Parks old-pop, Steve Malkmus’s divisive chic, Eminem’s perspective scrambles, Jon Spencer’s self-ironizing blooze—abounds as freely as it ever has.
So many will hear Bad Love as therapy both for a fiftysomething get ting his artistic mojo working and a demographic so sclerotic it makes Elvis Costello’s look like Ricky Martin’s. And in a way it is. Newman hasn’t sounded so much like himself in years; the album is like a Randy pastiche—redneck-railing faux–honky-tonk, cold-eyed history lessons, even a reprise of Little Criminals‘s World War I song, “I’ll Be Home,” recorded as if through an old Wurlitzer. Honeyed with some cinematic psychedelia here, some sweet self-loathing there, and enough Clintonian cynicism to make his and his characters’ dystopias much more universal than they deserve to be, preaching to the choir starts to feel like reinventing the wheel.
Like Newman’s last important re cord, 1988’s Land of Dreams—a Reagan-era outing that scrutinized the safe (and easy!) politics of particular hate and personal division—Bad Love comes with the refreshing scent of bile spewing in all the right directions, a visceral act good young ironists who’d rather evoke ennui than explain it could care less about. Moving from triumphant vaudeville numbers about capitalism run amuck (“The World Isn’t Fair,” he informs Karl Marx) to quiet dissections of the attachment disorder that festers underneath its surface, Bad Love arrives post-Little ton like a cross between Loudon Wainwright’s Social Studies and Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other.
“My Country” is a sarcastic advertisement for the TV-addled dysfunctional family sung in the voice of a patriarch who, as much as he loves to see his grown kids’ “faces softly glowing in the light,” has to admit he’s “kinda glad when they go away.” “I’m Dead (but I Don’t Know It)” is a rockin’ salvo from a geriatric star who shills for a following whose loyalty he can’t comprehend. “I Want Everyone To Like Me” is a faux standard about a Dilbertian gnome praying for his fairy godmother to take him to his peer group.
They’re all easy ironies, but they stick, especially when the tunes compel you to hum lines like “Feelings might go unexpressed/I think that’s probably for the best” as you nudge past some I-banker in the produce aisle. But the one that isn’t so easy—there’s always gotta be that one—is “I Miss You,” a deadbeat’s apologia from Randy, a centimeter from the mic making nice to his ex-wife and kids “laughing yourselves sick up there in Idaho” that peaks with the stanza, “I’d sell my soul/and your souls/for a song/so I’ll pour my heart out.” And just in time for Father’s Day, no less. Humanism has never sounded so crass. Maybe by the time he finishes his song cycle about colon cancer, now penciled in for 2012, he’ll have figured out how to express his feelings a little more directly.