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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Randy Newman, "Sail Away"

Randy Newman
"Sail Away"
Reprise (1972)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

It can be tough having a dry sense of humor. Comedy has degenerated to the point that if a joke isn't delivered loudly or obnoxiously, people aren't going to get it. This is the struggle for many attempting to appreciate Randy Newman as a songwriter. His lyrics and delivery usually don't result in anyone getting the joke, and even more often, people don't realize that a joke is occurring.

Take the classic title track of of his album "Sail Away." It is well understood now that the track is sung from the perspective of a slave trader, attempting to lure Africans into his boat by describing how great American is. With context, the humor is uproarious. Without, the song approaches Lee Greenwood-level propaganda. Newman sings and plays the piano (just as he does on "You've Got A Friend," the one song you know by him), but the orchestral strings that back him up make this sound like a genuine PSA to potential migrants. It's amazing that this song didn't draw the ire of ever-unfunny censors. The protagonist throws around some borderline racist lines, referencing "sweet watermelon" and comparing the potential products to monkeys. Most listeners porbably just interpreted this as another uplifting ode to America's greatness, not putting two-and-two together.

Newman has bigger problems than people not realizing that jokes are happening. Most of his trouble begins when listeners take his jokes and interpret them as serious statements. "Political Science" calls for the nuclear destruction of the rest of the world, because it doesn't like America. The track has a jaunty, cabaret feel so no one takes it too seriously, but Newman sells every character with a straight-faced tone of voice. He makes no indication that he's joking during "Political Science" nor "Sail Away," nor did he on perhaps his most controversial track, the almost-banned-in-Maryland "Short People." If you take him seriously, you might assume Newman's actually talking smack to his infant son during "Memo To My Son." Jonathan Swift would be proud of this guy.

Newman's skill as a songwriter doesn't end at snarky lyrics however. As someone experienced in scoring films (see Interesting Fact), Newman understands what levels of instrumentation he needs to best suit a track. Sometimes it's just him on piano ("God's Song"). Sometimes he needs orchestral backing ("He Gives Us All His Love"). He rarely calls on electric instruments, but he'll bring in an electric guitar when he feels necessary ("Last Night I Had A Dream").

Choice of instrumentation is worth looking out for on "Sail Away," but I understand that his lyrics are the main attraction. Just as long as you don't take them seriously. But, then again, he's never flat-out said he was kidding either.

INTERESTING FACT: In case you haven't seen a Pixar movie, you should know that Newman composes and writes for a lot of films. To date, he's been nominated for 20 Oscars. However, with that comes his record for most nominations without a win, at 15. He finally got a statuette in 2001 for "Monsters Inc." theme "If I Didn't Have You," and again in 2011 for "Toy Story 3" song "We Belong Together."

Sail Away by Randy Newman on Grooveshark

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