Harps and Angels
In the final verses to Potholes, one of the 10 fascinating ruminations of personal and professional politics that make up Harps and Angels, Randy Newman breezes over all of the irksome romantic remembrances in his life. “One forgives as one forgets,” he sings in his usual sleepy, sardonic voice. “And one does forget.”
Trouble is, he doesn't completely forget. The tune turns savagely inward when Newman recounts how his father, upon meeting Newman's second wife for the first time, reveled in telling the story of how the singer walked 14 batters in a row during a childhood baseball game only to leave the field in tears. Newman has confessed in interviews that the story — a view of romantic fancy balanced by youthful mortification — is true.
It's important to understand the personal impact of Potholes. That's because the rest of Harps and Angels, Newman's first album of new non-soundtrack music in nine years, takes generous potshots at the rest of modern civilization.
On Only a Girl, a remarkably less-complimentary romantic fable, Newman doesn't realize until the last verse how a woman of questionable beauty (“wears orthopedic shoes; it's some sort of uglification she's into”) became enamored with someone of his advancing years: “Maybe it's the money. Jeez, I never thought of that.”
Then there is the accidental near-death experience in Harps and Angels' title tune, in which heavenly hosts croon an awful lot like The Raelettes. As it turns out, the protagonist is nearly yanked up to heaven too soon due to a “clerical error” but is given a sufficient tongue-lashing all the same for his earthly misdeeds. Not that this sways his sense of spiritualism. “You know, boys, I'm a not a religious man,” Newman sings. “But I sent a prayer out just in case. You never know.”
Harps and Angels really heats up, though, when the current political climate comes into view. Borrowing a page from Newman's sadly prophetic 1972 tune Political Science, one of the first pop songs to suggest the United States wasn't nearly as beloved globally as we were at home, comes A Few Words in Defense of Our Country. A parable fittingly set to a loping country melody, it reflects on the final months of the Bush era to discover the flip side of Franklin Roosevelt's philosophy (“What are we supposed to be afraid of? Why, of being afraid”) and finds its only sad comfort in the fact the administration didn't sink to the dictatorial depths of Hitler and Stalin.
And let's not forget A Piece of the Pie, a view of a corrosive class system and a failing American Dream where the feel-good but corporately co-opted patriotism of John Mellencamp gets skewered (“Johnny Cougar's singing it's their country now; he'll be singing for Toyota in the fall”).
As pointed, funny and unsettling as Newman's songs can be, they are as arresting musically as they are lyrically. Referring often to the elegant Southern orchestration of 1974's classic Good Old Boys, Newman drapes his snapshots of a wilting America and checkered personal past with limber strings, suggestions of ragtime and Dixieland and, of course, the lazy, strolling accompaniment of his own piano playing.
Harps and Angels does come with two plaintive love songs (Losing You and Feels Like Home) that exhibit their own emotive ripple effects. As a whole, though, the album is a scrapbook that reveals, in typical Newman fashion, an unrepentant wit and an eerily frank confessional streak. Slap all of that together, and you have a view of a life parade that lumbers along on time as it veers ever so profoundly off course.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic