Randy Newman and the members of Jane’s Addiction would probably be the first to tell you that they don’t have anything in common, that they don’t listen to each other’s music, that they shouldn’t be in the same record review. And that’s probably true: Newman, forty-four and unprolific, makes immaculate pop music, with a lushness borrowed from movie soundtracks; Jane’s Addiction, young and restless, makes music that scrapes against the smooth surfaces of commercial pop. But these perverse, willful, Los Angeles-bred artists paint their very different pictures with similarly vivid strokes: both Nothing’s Shocking and Land of Dreams are populated by recognizable, real people, even if they’re people who aren’t likely to end up at the same party.
Jane’s Addiction is the latest great hope of the Los Angeles club scene, a product of a city whose often overlooked hard-rock scene has long been every bit as successful and commercially productive as its more heralded punk and postpunk scene. Jane’s Addiction straddles the line between the two camps, and several others: the band is indulgent and excessive, adept at typically screeching (but atypically original) hard-rock guitar raveups and at flights into dreamy psychedelia. A classic “love ’em or hate ’em” outfit, the band is great, and it is also full of shit — often at the same time, a dichotomy that may be the edge that sustains Nothing’s Shocking.
When Perry Farrell, lyricist and lead singer, offers us his views on, say, pervasive media violence (in the psychodrama “Ted, Just Admit It”) or the social order (in the horn-spiked “Idiots Rule”), he doesn’t have much to say that’s terribly new. But when he tells us where he is coming from, Jane’s Addiction is at its disturbing best: “Had a Dad” and “Standing in the Shower … Thinking,” for example, are hard-boiled riff rockers, unsettling, lyrically incisive and musically excessive. Best of all is “Jane Says,” a holdover from the rawer and more abrasive independent album that the band released last year; from the strummed acoustic guitar that carries it along to the song’s acid-etched portrait of an addict, the song is a worthy Left Coast successor to “Walk on the Wild Side.”
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But another comparison is even more instructive, and just as flattering. Forget about clones like Kingdom Come and Whitesnake: as much as any band in existence, Jane’s Addiction is the true heir to Led Zeppelin, creating music that’s simultaneously forbidding and weighty, delicate and ethereal. But it’s never — well, hardly ever — slavishly imitative, and Jane’s Addiction’s version of Zeppelin is stripped of Robert Plant’s fairy-tale whimsy: even when the sound is contemplative and plaintive, the sensibility is hardheaded and realistic.
You could say something similar about the sensibility of Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams. Newman has spent much of his career animating and hiding behind disagreeable characters: the exploitative “friend” in “Davy the Fat Boy,” the bigoted Southerner of “Rednecks,” the disdainful six-footer of “Short People.” There’s still plenty of role playing on this album (Newman’s ninth, not counting his soundtracks), but the heart of the record is a series of songs that seem to speak directly and frankly about Randy Newman.
The first of these songs — “Dixie Flyer” and “New Orleans Wins the War” — are bucolic views of a childhood in New Orleans, where picturesque streets, Fats Domino and Southern racism are mixed in an exotic cultural gumbo. Written from the wideeyed perspective of a child, these are not the broader parodic strokes of the bluntest material on Newman’s Southern concept album, Good Old Boys, but something far more generous and moving. And later, Newman is equally ingenuous about love of woman and country: “Falling in Love” and “Something Special” are naive, devoted love songs; “Follow the Flag,” a paean to unquestioning patriotism.
And then the rest of the album shows the flip side of those pretty, alluring dreams. Dispensing for the most part with the sledgehammer ironies of Newman’s broadest songs and showing his usual command over a subdued palette of piano-based but near-orchestral hues, Land of Dreams works in subtler, more unsettling ways; it doesn’t say that you can’t trust those pastoral childhood visions, only that you had better be careful.
So there’s “Roll with the Punches,” sung in the unconcerned voice of a so-called patriot with tunnel vision, railing at “all these boring people I see on TV/Making up all these boring stories about how bad things have come to be.” Reminiscent of “Christmas in Capetown” — the masterpiece on Newman’s last album, Trouble in Paradise — it is one of his most disturbing portraits of callowness. If “Roll with the Punches” is undercut by the songs that follow it — “Masterman and Baby J,” a broadly amusing but one-dimensional rap song, and “Red Bandana,” named for a gang emblem — you could also say that they are reminders that the only dreams left to some blacks are to become stars in the fields of show business or neighborhood warfare.
Besides “Masterman and Baby J,” the showiest song on the album is also its most inexplicable. “It’s Money That Matters” makes sense mostly as a way to illustrate Newman’s lengthy writer’s block. A virtual rewrite of “It’s Money That I Love,” from Newman’s nervy Born Again album, it was produced by Mark Knopfler and sounds just like his own “Money for Nothing.” (Besides Knopfler, the album was produced by Jeff Lynne and the team of James Newton Howard and Tony LiPuma.)
But if “It’s Money That Matters” is a misstep, at the end of the album Randy Newman brings it all back home. The last song begins softly, with a few drumbeats and a gentle wash of keyboards. Then Newman, now separated from his wife, starts singing — and suddenly the optimistic love songs and the autobiographical themes of the album come to an awful head: “I ran out on my children/I ran out on my wife/Gonna run out on you too, baby/I’ve done it all my life.”
He goes on: When he left, he says, his youngest son didn’t cry. So Dad took him aside, “put my arm round his little shoulder” and delivered what he says would be his message to the world — “I just want you to hurt like I do.” Then he finishes the line by swiping a phrase from Sam Cooke’s devotional “You Send Me,” singing, “Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.” It’s a chilling, coldblooded moment, maybe the most unsettling thing Randy Newman has ever recorded — but at the same time it’s nakedly honest, certainly callous but maybe caring as well.
Nothing’s shocking? Jane’s Addiction got that one wrong: “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” like the best moments of Randy Newman’s strongest album in more than a decade, certainly has the power to shock. But then, so does Jane’s Addiction. They don’t have much in common, but these two voices from the edge of the Pacific Ocean can get under your skin and stay there.