Randy Newman’s third studio album, Sail Away (Reprise 2064), produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, is further confirmation — as if any more were needed — of the fact that Newman is our most sophisticated art-song composer and also the most self-consciously American. His first album, co-produced by Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, was almost too much of a good thing. Newman the songwriter, the bitter ironist, was caricatured by Newman the arranger displaying his bravura virtuosity. The result was a brilliant but overly ornate presentation that magnified the bizarre pathos at the surface of the songs while obscuring their deeper intentions. The second studio album, also produced by Waronker, was a stunningly executed change-of-pace, showcasing the bitter ironist in a new guise — that of the consummate rock-and-roller. Then came Randy Newman/Live, on which Newman sang many of the songs from the first two albums with only his own piano accompaniment. Except for those songs recorded on Nilsson Sings Newman (Newman was pianist), it was the first time one was able to approach Newman’s songs as straight compositions and to detect the sensibility of a minimal artist at work.
Sail Away comprises 12 songs, all of them written, sung, and arranged by Newman. (Two songs — “Last Night I Had a Dream” and “Lonely At the Top” — are on the Live album in different versions.) Sail Away is Newman’s most mature album, a work of genius. Though Newman returned to the studio to make it, the album has much the same stark quality as the Live album, for the arrangements, so admirably restrained, consistently serve the songs rather than themselves. As both musician and poet, Newman juggles many elements, creating a collection of miniature, spare collages that form an ambiguous whole.
The special triumph of Sail Away is the coming to the fore of Newman, the supreme humanist and metaphysician, uttering blunt epiphanies that cut to the quick. Newman’s mastery of juxtaposition and irony is used to expose with clarity and emotional force his own brooding agnosticism, rooted in a complex struggle between the absurd and the tragic. At times, too, he seems to speak for America itself, voicing both its deepest longing and disappointment.
The best songs on the album treat these themes in the loftiest terms. Laced with Newman’s characteristic irony, they nevertheless confront their subjects immediately, state them with the utmost terseness, and then simply end. Not a word or a note is wasted. It is a dazzling demonstration of the concept that less is more if it’s just enough.
Although there is not a disappointing cut on the album, three songs stand out as especially magnificent. The title cut, which begins the album, is an austere ballad that carries a lovely string arrangement over a rolling, recurrent piano motif. While the music gently soars, Newman describes the American dream of a promised land as it might have been presented to black Africa in slave running days, but also with the full knowledge of everything to follow.
In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American
Sail Away — Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
“Old Man” is a simple, slow lullaby, in which Newman offers cruel but truthful comfort to a man on the threshold of death. Between verses, a string choir plays a short, poignant hymn-like bridge that resonates disturbingly with the words to follow.
You want to stay I know you do
But it ain’t no use to try
‘Cause I’ll be here — and I’m just like you
Goodbye, old man, goodbye
Won’t be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don’t need anybody
And nobody needs you
Don’t cry old man, don’t cry
“God’s Song,” which closes the album, is the most far-reaching song Newman has yet recorded. Along with “He Gives Us All His Love” (a glib send-up of “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”), it expresses Newman’s problematic, tormented spirituality in the face of worldly suffering. Using the form of a Job-like dialogue between man and god, the song is set to an ambling bluestinged melodic fragment supported only by the piano. In the last verse, Newman takes god’s part and drawls out a wry, very human-sounding response.
I burn down your cities — how blind must you be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind.
“You really need me,” the devastating crux of the poem, embodies the paradox that Newman, and we, are left with.
Newman is essentially a post-Romantic composer whose musical ideas descend from Mahler, through Copland and the Copland-derived tradition of horse opera movie theme background music that has formed our standard musical connection to the frontier myth. Newman may use this tradition ironically, and he clearly seeks purgation from its sentimental excesses, but it is obvious that he is also in love with it. The same also holds for Newman’s relationship to musical Americana, whose resources he mines extensively and with affection, paraphrasing in sketch everything from Stephen Foster, to the Charleston, to Gershwin and Kern, to the Fifties’ cabaret ballad. Rock and roll is prominent among this array, although I suspect that Newman sees it as only the latest and perhaps most potent species of Americana. For Newman’s vision is, above all, a comprehensive musical and philosophical overview.
Newman is also the finest interpreter of his own songs. World-weary and rasping, his remarkable voice conveys much the same extramusical dimension that is transcendent in the last Billie Holiday records, where even the shallowest material is vocally transmuted into a life-and-death proposition. Though Newman is not an intuitive stylist like Holiday, but a very calculating interpreter, the effect is still quite similar. As a rock-and-roller he sounds a lot like Joe Cocker — emotionally deeper, though technically less facile.
Sail Away is Newman’s most-personal album to date. It stands alongside the John Lennon and Paul Simon albums as another milestone within the evolving rock-as-art-song form. There is a common denominator to these great albums, and it is a universal one — the painful coming into awareness of one’s own certain mortality. In the popular arts we have moved into an era of tragic realism. I think that this is an inevitable outcome of the Sixties’ apocalyptic sensibility and the growing up of the rock and roll generation. Sail Away is a major achievement of the new era.