Full disclosure: I do not like Randy Newman. I have yet to hear more than maybe two or three songs of his that I think are really, truly great. (One of them is on this record.) Sure, most of them are above average, but his reputation far exceeds what I’ve heard, in my opinion.
This record presents me with a dilemma and I’m not sure I’m happy with my solution to that dilemma.
On the one hand: I don’t know if I’ve softened to his voice, or his voice has softened, or he’s become a better performer, but this is the first Randy Newman album I’ve heard where I’m not wishing for another singer. And maybe it’s that, but it makes me connect to some of these songs more, the lyrics anyway. For perhaps the first time, I finally get why Newman is so damn revered. Every previous album I’ve found his mixture of earnestness and satire to be off-putting. But here, I find I (mostly) accept it. (There is one huge exception.) So that’s the good. I’m not sure it’s enough.
On the other hand, this record is horribly overproduced. It sounds like 1988 a lot of the time and sometimes it sounds like other artists in 1988. (As others have pointed out, one of these songs is so obviously a Jeff Lynne arrangement it’s not even funny. I didn’t even know Lynne appeared on the record but thought “Oh my god, this must be Jeff Lynne.” Sure enough.) Even the songs that are supposed to conjure up New Orleans sound like a 1988 facsimile. This makes Newman’s songs more accessible, in a way, but it also dates the record.
And then there’s “Masterman and Baby J.” If a 45-year-old white male had released this track in 2018 instead of 1988, there would be a great deal of controversy, and discussion about whether or not Newman was “allowed” to make sure a record. I have no problem with artistic freedom; people can do what they want. But I would side with those who would seek to censure an older, white male for a satire that is seemingly based on the idea that young people from another culture are idiots because he hasn’t bothered to try to understand them. I don’t like hip hop, but I think I like old man satires of hip hop even less. (Plus, you have to listen to Randy Newman rap.)
I as going to give this a 6/10 for his lyrics, but I docked it for “Masterman and Baby J,” which I have to assume is the most embarrassing thing he has ever recorded and is the rare song that makes me cringe while listening to it.