On the title track to Randy Newman’s first studio album in nine years, the man once hailed as the “bard of barbs” details a near-death experience that left him lying prostrate on the pavement. So here’s some news that will assuage the mortal fears of a man approaching 65: Last year, a Norwegian University of Science and Technology study concluded that those who easily found humor in real-life situations outlived those who didn’t. So let’s pencil in Newman for the centenarians’ club right now. Whether deadpanning lyrics like “You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree” or performing helium-huffed renditions of “My Bonnie Lives Over the Ocean” as the Singing Bush in ¡Three Amigos!, Newman is a master of sardonic humor, be it subtle or slapstick. Harps and Angels is further proof. “A Piece of the Pie” wryly debases the American Dream: “The rich are getting richer/I should know.” “Korean Parents” drolly indulges Asian stereotypes while addressing the issue of race in public schools. Save for the fumbling “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” the affable populist is in familiar territory: op-ed-worthy harangues softened by clever wordsmithing and mirthful genre play (big band, c&w, Dixieland). Protest songs without the fist pumps—or the soapbox.
Not that he’s not serious about this. Perhaps it’s age and an accruing sense of urgency, but the guy who looks like your dad’s golfing-league partner has never brought the listener into his confidence so deliberately—”Losing You” and a rehash of “Feels Like Home” express deeply mortal sentiments. Underneath orchestral arrangements more celluloid than Top 40 is pure parlor-room technique: an old man, his beat-up piano, and songs committed to heart, not paper. Newman once admitted to hating how his mouth looked on television when he sang; he’s always been attracted to downtrodden folks and their vulnerabilities because he’s ever-aware of his own. Despite a persistent spirit, Newman knows he’s not immortal. But his music surely is.
Randy Newman plays Carnegie Hall September 19. It will be awesome.