05 January 2009

solidifying an opinion (part 1 of the 2008 retrospective)

For me personally, 2008 was a pretty darn successful year. I got promoted at work and got to slide out from under a particularly useless supervisor, we produced our first lengthy motion picture, I jumped ahead a good five years in my life plan when I got to talk to Steve Zuckerman on the phone, I landed a girlfriend that's ridiculously ideal in every conceivable way, and neo-con, government-hating Republican policy got repudiated in the clearest possible way in November (I don't know what'll happen in 2 weeks, or after that, but I can hope... for change, right?). I guess the meltdown of the global economy isn't exactly "good," but since I've not been fired yet, I'm not able to complain too much (except about the "bailout," which seems more to be a handout to the top 1% that steered us into this mess in the first place)...

But, we're getting sidetracked (as I am wont to do). The point here is to put forth the first portion of my series of reactions to my favorite music of 2008. This is a significant entry in that it's the second time I've done it on this particular blog, and the first time, it was the most substantial undertaking I'd... undertaken in this space's short existence. Now, here comes the foll
ow-up. Pray that I can be as thoughtful and (I hope) interesting as I was last time.

Just to clarify once again, "favorite" is different from "best." As someone who's more an enthusiast than even a burgeoning expert on music, I feel more comfortable labeling my list with the former, rather than the latter. That being said...

My Favorite Albums of 2008:

1. United Nations - United Nations
TV On The Radio - Dear Science
3. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
5. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels

I still haven't finalized a set of recipients for my list of major awards, so that'll come later. But for now, let's tackle #5 on the list.

My introduction to Randy Newman came from, not surprisingly, Toy Story, specifically his song, "You've Got A Friend In Me" that played at the end of the film. I loved the song (I love the movie, in case that was a subject of curiosity), but I didn't do too much to investigate the man singing the song (which probably has something to do with the fact that I was 12 years old when it came out). I also recall that he performs a duet with Mister Lyle Lovett on The Road to Ensenada; a song called "Long, Tall Texan," I believe (my parents and I share an affection for Lyle - I've seen him at Red Rocks twice, and had a great time both times).

I'll come clean and admit that I don't own a single Randy Newman album beyond Harps and Angels, but I don't think that prevents me from appreciating it. I'd heard someone (and I'm paraphrasing here) say that Harps and Angels was Randy Newman at his Randy Newman-est (especially recently, what with all of his soundtrack work), and, well, what the hell? It's only money, and time (two of my most valuable commodities, actually)... Moments later, thanks to iTunes, I grabbed it, and listened.

It's a special album that can make time fly past without my even noticing it. Pearl Jam's self-titled album is really great at that, as is Funeral, and The Colour & The Shape, just to name a few others. Harps and Angels should be added to that list. Perhaps its relatively brief running time (just about 35 minutes) contributes to that, but hey, the greatest writer in the history of the English language declared brevity to be the soul of wit, so the fact that Mr. Newman can say what he wants to say and be done with it in a reasonable span of time is worth noting.

What strikes me - what's always struck me when I've heard his songs - is how well he can balance sincere almost-sentimentality with an impressively biting wit. As an example, let's take... well, almost every single track on the album (with the notable exceptions of "Losing You" and "Feels Like Home," but we'll get to those later). In the interest of expediency, let's go with the first track on the album (the title track, interestingly enough), where Newman's character suffers a heart attack and heads up to heaven, only to be turned back at the last second, because it's not his time. He's given some life advice before he departs, though, in order to prevent him from hearing, not harps and angels, but "trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tamborines." In the end of the song, he passes on these pearls of wisdom to his buddies.

I'll pull two bits from the lyrics to illustrate the careful balance Newman can walk effortlessly:

As I lay there on that cold pavement/
A tear ran down my face/
'Cause I thought I was dying/
You boys know I'm not a religious man/
But I sent a prayer out just in case/
You never know"


"So actually the main thing about this story is for me/
There really is an afterlife/
And I hope to see all of you there/
Let's go get a drink"

Admittedly, reading the lyrics without the priviledge of hearing his delivery (unlike any other as it is) only has maybe 40% of the impact of the song itself, but I think the snippets make my point for me. As the character lies on the ground, convinced he's about to die, the thought that flashes through his mind is to pray, just in case God's real, and at the close, when he has his epiphany about the existence of the afterlife, and how important it'll be for him to have his friends there with him, he cools the situation down by taking everyone out to the bar. This little skill of his might well make him one of the best, most human of songwriters, for his ability to create real people, with real human qualities, in barely five minutes time, is enviable (to put it mildly).

As I mentioned last year, I appreciate an artist's engagement with the world outside of him/herself, and the middle of the album (tracks 4-7, I'd say) is bursting at the seams with precisely that. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" delivers precisely what it promises (fatalism, with a dash of hope mixed in), "A Piece of the Pie" is addressed to those people who've had it worst during the series of terrible collapses we've been forced to endure these past few months, and "Korean Parents" explains, in no uncertain terms, why America's "falling behind" (everyone - the Korean immigrants that are the focus of the song, for instance - is working themselves harder than we are). The character Newman voices in "Korean Parents" proposes an interesting solution: white kids should purchase his parents to provide them with sufficient motivation to get ahead.

Let's take a look at "A Few Words..." in order to enjoy Mr. Newman's wordsmithing once again:

Just a few words in defense of our country/
Whose time at the top/
Could be coming to an end/
Now we don’t want their love/
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question/
But in times like these/
We sure could use a friend"

I love his delivery; I call it that because while he doesn't always speak, he sure doesn't sing. The songs wouldn't be half the songs they are if he wasn't the one articulating them.

I'll touch on "Losing You" at the close here (I'd write paragraph upon paragraph about "Feels Like Home," but then I wouldn't have anything to write when the time came to list my favorite song of last year - yes, I know it's been recorded before. Well, let me say this: they're perfect counterpoints to one another) by mentioning that it's a beautiful song, the sort of song that only Randy Newman, and only Randy Newman right now, could record. Just when you're getting ready for a riotously good time, hearing Newman lambaste the awful men and women that've run America for the last eight years, he throws something like this at you (which is perfect, by the way):

When you're young/
And there's time/
To forget the past/
You don't think you will/
But you do/
But I know that I don't have time enough/
And I'll never get over losing you"

I believe that's the sort of song Rob Gordon refers to when he worries about kids listening to thousands - literally, thousands - of songs about heartbreak, rejection, and lonliness. Regardless of the effect it might've had on my subconscious, I'm glad I heard it, and the songs that surround it. Sometimes the only way we can stay sane is to cry, or laugh, or maybe both, alternating hot and cold.

So, there's Harps and Angels. Next time, the new Sigur Ros album (as promised several months ago, right?).


Susan said...

I love Randy Newman and, thus, this post-- but "Losing You" is not about the usual kind of heartbreak. Randy talks about the story behind the song, and sings it with just piano, here:


I think you'll appreciate it even more after hearing what inspired it.

Phil W said...

God almighty, you weren't kidding...

Susan said...

:-) He's a treasure.