“Here we are, living in paradise,” sang Elvis Costello a few albums ago, and while Randy Newman probably would agree with that statement, he’d be more interested in its underlying frustration: if this is paradise, why aren’t we happy? On his ninth album, Newman has chosen to explore the ambivalences of paradise, not only sundrenched climes, but ostensibly ideal situations as well: parties, self-confidence, true love. Observing these paradoxical states of affairs, Newman’s eye is as keen and pungent as ever; what makes Trouble in Paradise special is that he’s infused his acute perception with an almost startling compassion.
Newman’s characters may still spout sexual crudities and ethnic slurs, but Trouble in Paradise eschews the smarmy, gimcrack gimmickry that cheapened Born Again and Little Criminals. While his mordant wit is delightfully abundant here, this album is anchored on two genuinely soul-stirring ballads, “Same Girl” and “Real Emotional Girl.” It is their power and some fiery arrangements that make Trouble in Paradise rank right up there with Sail Away as the apotheosis of Newman’s art.
No purported utopia is closer to Newman’s heart, or his funny bone, than his native Los Angeles. “Look at that mountain/Look at those trees,” exclaims the freeway-cruising character in the raveup “I Love L.A.” “Look at that bum over there He’s down on his knees.” In thankfulness or — more likely — agony? Newman conceals that ambiguity beneath the flash of Waddy Wachtel’s guitar and the sun-bleached huzzahs (“We love it!”) of backup singers Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie.
Newman’s skewer is even sharper on “My Life Is Good.” in which a nouveau riche El Lay songwriter engages in a feisty bout of one-upmanship and name-dropping with his kid’s schoolteacher, culminating in a gut-busting Hollywood encounter with Bruce Springsteen: “He said, Rand, I’m tired How would you like to be the Boss for a while?'” So Newman yelps, “Blow, Big Man,” and Ernie Watts lets out an unearthly sax squawk. It’s enough to spin you off your Barcalounger.
Newman’s rummations on two other paradises. Florida and South Africa, are not nearly so sangume. “Miami” fairly bristles off its grooves, with its tractions instrumentation atop a defiantly unperky calypso beat. “Gee, I love Miami,” he deadpans. “It’s so nice and hot And every building’s so pretty and white And I always get into so much trouble there.” Even sympathetic Newman listeners may have trouble with the racial obscenities in “Christmas in Capetown,” wherein a South African roughly excoriates the horrified British woman who’s visiting him. Newman makes impressive use of a dissonant backup chorus and again imbues a hateful character with a bizarre dignity. “Just take a look around,” the Afrikaner protests. “What are we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” Well. Newman seems to say, somebody’s gonna.
Nowhere on Trouble in Paradise is Newman more gleeful than when he’s demolishing the bliss of unchecked egotism that characterizes, in many minds, the Seventies rock musician. And on “The Blues” and “I’m Different,” Newman employs musicians at whom that charge has been hurled in the past: Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt, among them. Not only their talents emerge, but a sense of humor as well. “The Blues” is as poppy a melody as Newman has written. “A year ago. I met a girl I thought we’d hit a massive groove,” croons Simon. “But she dumped me And all we’d hit were the blues.” Also faring well are Jennifer Warnes and Wendy Waldman, who combine with Ronstadt to contribute some seamless backup singing to the album’s funniest track, “I’m Different.” “I ain’t savin’ I’m better than you are,” struts Newman, as the Trio Grande oohs in assent, “but maybe I am.” The high-gloss polish of Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman’s production adds an additional hilarity to the song’s ersatz breast-beating: “I ain’t gonna play your gosh-darn game.”
Wit is what we’ve come to expect from Newman, and though his insights are especially trenchant, his subjects could be said to be easy marks. That’s not the case with the record’s strongest cuts. “Same Girl” and “Real Emotional Girl.” Here, a subdued Newman spins a more subtle tale. True, faithful, mutual love, Newman realizes, can be as filled with sadness as its more commonly lamented imperfect forms. Lake Springsteen. Newman understands that even a superficially happy sentence like “You’re still the same girl that I love” can be fraught with disappointment. On “Same Girl,” he sets that sentiment in a wan, almost Kurt Weill-like melody, and sings the song in an achingly world-weary voice.
In suspended piano chords whose stark beauty suggests a Lenten hymn, “Real Emotional Girl” tells of a woman so emotional, “every little thing you tell her She’ll believe She really will.” The mood is a plangent mix of tenderness and melancholy, wonder and affection. “I never had a girl who loved me Half as much as this girl loves me,” he intones. But Newman casts new light on that hoary pop cliché with a delicate touch of self-deprecation: “She’s real emotional.” This is the ardently nonconfessional Newman stripping himself of his props: the klutzy characters, the goofy jokes. “She turns on easy It’s like a hurricane,” he marvels. “You would not believe it,” he whispers, “gotta hold on tight to her.” I can hardly recall a song as full of love as this one; it may well be the finest performance of Newman’s career.
Too bad that Trouble in Paradise ends with its weakest cut, a Vietnam elegy, “Song for the Dead.” that sorely lacks the fresh perspective of the album’s other tracks. But that failure can’t blunt the considerable achievement of this album. Newman has taken the notion of paradise and flung it open, across the world, across our culture and into our emotions. His facility and wit are no surprise; it is his newfound (or newly expressed) perceptivity, steeped in human emotion, that makes Trouble in Paradise both humorous and heartfelt.