I have long struggled to “get” Randy Newman, often finding the contrasts in tone within a single record, and the excessive arrangements, to be far more of a problem than his voice. (I assume his voice is the thing that keeps most people from enjoying him.)
But I was listening to an episode of the latest season of Revisionist History a few weeks ago, which is about this album, and I learned something about his writing. I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious to me before and I feel pretty dumb for having not figured it out, but now that I know it I am evaluating his work in a new light. What was that thing? Randy Newman writes in character.
I listen to and enjoy plenty of songwriters who write in character. And I almost always figure that out on my own. But, for some reason, with him, it never clicked. My biggest gripe about him as a songwriter – that he can never commit to earnestness or satire – turns out to be feature, not a bug, because these are characters. Facepalm. (This doesn’t remove my major gripe about the sound of his albums, though, which is that they are overproduced.) Would I have figured this out had I listened to Good Old Boys without having listened to that episode of Revisionist History? I’d really like to hope so.
As Malcolm Gladwell talked about on that podcast, it’s hard to imagine a singer-songwriter taking on such material in 2019; the backlash would be unbelievable. But, as the man once said, the mark of a civilized man is the ability to put himself in another’s shoes, and that’s what Newman is doing here. Lyrically, I really admire it for the most part, at least now that someone has explained to me what Newman does. But I still can’t say I like his vibe musically. I still find these songs over done as I prefer my singer songwriter stuff more stripped down or quirkier.
But this is one to take seriously and, in time, I may have a different opinion. Moreover, I think I am not going to pay a lot more attention to Randy Newman’s lyrics when I listen to him.