Even amongst fans of Randy Newman 'Born Again' is a somewhat unloved album. Perhaps it is the cover - Newman in Kiss makeup as calculating executive. Or is it a certain coldness that pervades the album. The delicate strings of previous albums are relaced by subtle synthesiser arrangements. Songs such as 'Pretty Boy' and 'Mr Sheep' deal with thuggish bullies whilst 'They Just Got Married' is brutally economic.
Perhaps it is just the dire 'Pants'
Listening now the album certainly deserves reappraisal. From its brilliant opener - the New Orleans flavoured 'Its Money That I Love' with its rolling, stabbing piano through the moving picture of alienated old age 'Ghosts' and the sly 'Girls In My Life Part 1'.
'Story of a Rock'n'Roll Band' is a send up of the Electric Light Orchestra (though the joke is on the musically illiterate fan) and as such has dated a little, but much of it is still funny and the tune is catchy. In 'Pretty Boy' Newman adopts the persona of a street hoodlum taunting a newcomer (on another level the song could be a dig at Bruce Springsteen) - it is a fine song, whilst his impersonation of a bully on 'Mr Sheep' is almost too convincing. 'They Just Got Married' which again shows Newman's affection for New Orleans music could be a goodtime party track but for the cruelly indifferent lyrics.
Elsewhere special mention should go to 'William Brown' - a beautiful vignette encapsulating a life briefly and movingly.
Which brings us to 'Pants'. It opens promisingly enough with an ELP/Prog Rock parody - but nosedives into mere silliness thereafter. Am I missing something in this song?
This album has so many fine songs and where some of the targets appear a little obvious there is often another layer waiting.
on 8 February 2006
Newman is much loved by all intelligent music fans but this album, unlike the rest of his excellent 70s output gets few accolades. This is a shame because it contains some of my favourite Randy tracks. Perhaps the reason is the venom of the thing, many of Randy's tracks have bite but this is sarcasm beyond compare. Great tunes with interesting arrangements. You can't go wrong - just buy it!
on 22 May 2012
This may be Newman's most unfathomable album (and that's saying something!)
The dark cover and the joke-that-didn't-quite-work-because-it's-a-bit-creepy pose (Randy as Kiss fan consultant) sum up the odd mood of the whole. And there's a downright nastiness here or...there might be. You're never quite sure.
It would be tempting to try and divide the songs into "light" and "heavy" numbers but, typically for Newman, the dividing line isn't so clear. On the one hand there are some out and out shockers like "It's Money That I Love" and "They Just Got Married". (The latter has one of the most unexpectedly vicious lines you'll hear but I won't spoil the surprise.) And then there is a (mock) jolly ode to the ELO "Story of a Rock `n Roll Band" that is actually quite affectionate. (Or is it? With Newman it's always hard to tell!)
I've heard that "Pretty Boy" is an affectionate mickey take of Bruce Springsteen. Really? It's one of the most menacing things I've ever heard. Imagine you walk into a bar in an unfamiliar part of town. And just as you're sipping your drink someone who looks decidedly unfriendly makes a very unwelcoming remark. Someone else echoes it. And you suddenly realise you're surrounded by lots of VERY mean looking people. And it's an awfully long way to the door. That's "Pretty Boy".
Perhaps "Mr Sheep" is taking cleverness a bit too far. Newman said that everyone thought it was a swipe at conformist city executives but that it was really meant to be a swipe at would-be rebels who take the mickey out of conformist city executives. All I can say is that there is an odd sadness/ jollity/ sarcasm combination here of the type that only Newman could come up with.
In terms of its emotional content "Ghosts" could be the most awe inspiringly complex song Randy ever wrote. It's a quiet little number about an old man living alone who feels completely out of touch with the world around him and whose only happiness lies in futile nostalgic dreams. And we listen to him with a kind of pitying tolerance. Then we hear this line: "Out in the street the coloured kids are playing / Where my one little boy used to play". We realise with a shock that the old man is racist. And we're glad his world is gone. But then we see that his racism isn't a heartfelt meanness but a generalised inherited racism. But then we think that swallowing a generalised racism is perhaps even worse than being passionately racist. But we still can't bring ourselves to despise the old man. He seems to be another sad victim of his times. And so we go back and forward as if caught in a mirror maze of uncertain conflicting feelings.
"The Girls In My Life (Part 1)" could be the drollest thing Newman ever recorded. He even sings, or rather says, "tweet tweet tweet". That alone is worth the price of admission.
In "William Brown", Newman gives us a mood that he sometimes indulged in - the wistful fleeting sad daydream that says "Things are certainly not like this but wouldn't it be nice if they were" (c.f. "He Gives Us All His Love" and "Dayton Ohio") It's a beautiful little song.
I used to think that "Pants" was just a bit of psychotically neurotic angst till some reviewer said it was a send up of grandiose rock anthems. Newman takes the big synthesizer laden bombast of ....ooh ELO I suppose, and marries it to infantile lyrics. The big strutting rock star threatens to ......well, just take off his pants. And ends up pathetically pleading "Will YOU take off my pants?" So there you are: the entire "subversive" history of the mighty ROCK mercilessly lampooned.
Which brings us back to the cover: Kiss star as business executive. Now THAT'S creepy!