We gave it a B+
Randy Newman hasn’t written many funnier passages in his 30-year-plus career than the diatribe that erupts late in a new song called ”Shame,” in which he explores the mindset of an aging sugar daddy trying to woo back his pretty young thing but unable to keep his inappropriate anger under wraps. ”You know what it feels like to have to get up in the middle of the night and sit down to take a piss?/You do know?/So you say/I have my doubts, Missy.” Moments later, he’s bribing her with keys to the Lexus.
If you know Newman, you know there’ll be more bad guys where this one came from in Bad Love, his first new collection of assorted vocal numbers in 10 years. (That’s not counting 1995’s star-studded, star-crossed theater project Faust or his mountain of accumulated film scores.) In the past, rock’s premier satirist accidentally produced hits — ”Short People,” ”I Love L.A.” — when his spoofery reached Tom Lehrer levels of obviousness, but traditionally he’s gravitated toward misogynists, racists, the criminally rich, and other Top 40 Teflon. Bad Love offers more middle-aged pop that’s petty on the inside. At one point Newman effectively summarizes his cast of characters as ”…men much like me/Froggish men, unpleasant to see/Were you to kiss one, Karl/Nary a prince would there be.” That’s another baddie, Karl Marx, he’s chatting with, citing said toad’s ability to collect trophy wives as definitive capitalist proof that ”The World Isn’t Fair.”
In a fair world, Newman’s long string of brilliant albums would’ve made him a Rockefeller. But he’s been at this long enough to know firsthand George S. Kaufman’s maxim that satire is what closes on Saturday night, so it’s predictable that all this narcissism is sometimes played for broader laughs than it might. Consider ”I’m Dead,” his evisceration of fiftysomething rock stars who don’t know when to give up the ghost, hilarious on paper but saddled with a rock-mocking, rib-nudging arrangement that kills comedy with cartoonishness. (It’s a slippery slope separating Mark Twain and Weird Al.)
But occasional caricatures aside, he’s mostly in form with Bad Love, which is really an album about bad lonesomeness, even if Newman inevitably favors the spot where lonely turns into nasty. His best work has always produced the queasy feeling that he (and you) could relate to his untrustworthy narrators, and there’s plenty to identify with in ”Better Off Dead,” an Esquivelesque ode to fatal attractions, or ”I Want Everyone to Like Me,” the shuffle that agreeably closes the album.
In the patriotic opener, ”My Country,” he even coughs up a root cause for all this desperation: television. The image of a TV nation whose favorite method of familial communication is to ”bounce it off the screen” may not be original. But the 55-year-old Newman, just young enough to be a child of the tube himself, has claimed the verses are autobiographical, making lines like ”Feelings might go unexpressed/I think that’s probably for the best” resonant and spooky. Picturing parents and kids staring at a Zenith in communal isolation is an effective setup for the rest of the album, too: All those over-moneyed lotharios who follow had to learn to be lonely somewhere.
Most uncharacteristic is ”I Miss You,” a letter to an ex-wife that eschews any cleverness in the service of repeating the title phrase over and over, along with the first sincere apology in his oeuvre. (The one conceivable chuckle comes when he pictures his divorcee ”laughing [her]self sick up in Idaho,” but that’s where Newman’s ex really lives, so shut up.) Contemporary pop’s most gifted melodist isn’t in danger of coming up with too much material that’s lyrically melodious, mind you. But if he’ll never be a ”sensitive” singer-songwriter, Newman does seem interested, finally, in finding the place where nasty turns back into lonely. B+