"Nothing," says Randy Newman when asked what he had been thinking about when he began work on his eighth album, Trouble in Paradise. "I had no cohesive plan in mind."
A cynical tour de force, Trouble in Paradise sets several of Newman's nastiest portraits of prejudice, greed, ego and small-mindedness against some of the most striking music of his career. "It came to be about places and situations that could be ideal," says Newman, "but are somehow messed up."
Newman is clearly one of pop music's preeminent songwriters. But with Trouble in Paradise, he also mastered the art of great record making. Today it stands as one of the best albums of his career, a fully realized collection of story-songs in which Newman's dark take on the world is fully fleshed out.
Although the best-known song is Newman's love-hate letter to his hometown, "I Love L.A." ("Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He's down on his knees"), Trouble in Paradise is full of clever material. "Christmas in Cape Town," with its disturbingly spooky music, is a poignant tale of racism and mean-spiritedness. In "Mikey's," two old-timers complain about what the world is coming to, distressed by the minorities now frequenting their favorite bar. "There's a Party at My House" sounds like a good-time rocker, until the punch line ("Hey Bobby, get the rope"), which hints at kinky escapades.
The centerpiece of the record is "My Life Is Good," which details the self-importance of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer. Asked about the similarities between the song's protagonist and himself, Newman laughs and says, "If I were that big a jerk, I wouldn't admit to it."
The arrangements throughout the album have a cinematic quality (Newman worked on movie scores to The Natural and Ragtime). "His songs are quite visual," says Lenny Waronker, who coproduced the album with Russ Titelman. "His songs are like little movies. It's like scoring eleven films."
The album includes some impressive cameos: Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Seger, Wendy Waldman, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Paul Simon all contribute. "His peers have such a high regard for him," says Waronker. "They wanted to be a part of it and help get Randy's stuff out to a lot of people."
How does Newman feel now about Trouble in Paradise? "It's a pretty good batch of songs," he says. "There are things about it I love. Like the first half of 'Miami.' I like the two ballads, 'Real Emotional Girl' and 'Same Girl.' And 'My Life Is Good' — although if I had to do it again, I might not do it the same way. It might be funnier just with piano."