#321 on Rolling Stone's Greatest Albums of All Time.
Randy Newman’s Sail Away
. Not his best album, honestly. Sure, it’s a fantastic collection of songs, each remarkably evocative and full-bodied; they play out like fine wine, swoosh it around in your ears, let me know what you think. But this isn’t his best album. And that’s no fault of this album, damn if it don’t try to be the best album it can be. A million song writers would severely maim a gaggle of school children to write material half as clever, a percentage as human, as these songs are. More than anything, Sail Away
is the kind of album that makes you think, “can it possibly get any more sublime?" And then you hear Good Old Boys
Most folk probably know Newman from his billion and a half soundtracks, but that’s hardly all to know. Randy Newman mastered the pop song along time before Pixar gave life to twitchy toy cowboys and Mr. Potato Head. Hell, he had all the pop song mechanics down well before this album dropped. Catch is, he mastered album-making with Good Old Boys
. The unfortunate situation with uniquely unparalleled artists is that once they’ve set a bar, we’ll be damned if they don’t do the limbo. If some of an artist’s material doesn’t quite stand up to the back-bending gymnastics of profundity that certain other material have achieved, well, it doesn’t seem to be all that great now, huh? In that sense, Sail Away
is a abdomen stretch compared to Good Old Boys
' full body contortion.
Hey, this is about Sail Away
, not Good Old Boys
The idea whole idea behind Randy Newman is you’ve got a guy writing these unashamed pop songs, practically jingles. Piano-driven ditties populated by offbeat personalities and dancing bears. Not only are they catchy, they’re witty as all get out. But for all his talent, Newman always straddled the line between popularity and critical obscurity.
To some, it’s that acerbic wit of old Randy that hurt him; many of his songs, if read by human beings with broken sarcasm detectors, could probably be seen as offensive. “You Can Leave Your Hat On," ain’t no feminist anthem, what with seedy lines like, “Now come back here and stand on this chair... that’s right / Raise your arms up in to the air... shake ‘em." The track is bluesy, like a Ray Charles cut with more smut. But the grace of the song is the perverted reality of all the sleazy posturing. The narrator is a relatable dork of a fella, and the oddball concepts of love and unrepentant sexuality, simply human ideas.
And then you’ve got the foreign relations nightmare of “Political Science," where Newman assumes a hapless persona who suggests, “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens." It plays out like an apocalyptic show-tune, “Boom goes London and boom Pare-ee," horns tooting the satire along. “Sail Away" comes from the perspective of a slave trader throwing a sales pitch to Africans: “In America, you’ll get food to eat / Won’t have to run through the jungle / And scuff up your feet." As blatantly offensive as the lyrics are, the tune itself is this majestically ebb-and-flow album opener, strings, horns, the works but not excessive at all. A weird contrast, purely unsavory, yet strikingly beautiful.
When not offending special interest groups, Sail Away
is introspective and entranced by the glow of religion. In regards to the latter, it’s not preachy, just intrigued. Newman professes no faith, just an admiration of what he calls, “the biggest hit in history - the invention of God." The two prime examples, “He Gives Us All His Love" and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)," aren’t at all ambivalent to the concept of God. “He Gives Us All His Love" is completely straight-faced, practically a hymnal but less spectacular than the latter. “God’s Song" is a musical stroke of grace, without a doubt, the finest song on the album. Newman writes from the perspective of God himself, declaring his contempt for mankind: “Man means nothing / He means less to me / Than the lowliest cactus flower / Or the humblest Yucca tree... I recoil in horror / From the foulness of thee / From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery / How we laugh up here in heaven / At the prayers you offer me / That’s why I love mankind." It’s just Newman and piano. Would expect that the guy who wrote “You’ve Got a Friend" could write some of the most soul crushing lamentations in pop history? Well, he did. Quite frequently, actually. So screw whatever you expected.
is a close-packed collection of pop songs, all of which work pretty well. Newman is an odd kind of pop musician, one who brought deadpan comedy to songs describing a morally topsy-turvy America peopled by freaks, hustlers, and lunatics. I stole that last line from the liner notes. They stole it from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll
. I don’t know what else to say. Not a complete essential but something you better pick up at some point. Maybe get Good Old Boys
first. Yeah, you do that.