Old/New Albums: Randy Newman’s “Trouble In Paradise”

randynewmanIf you’ve watched a single Pixar movie from the last 20 years, there is a great chance you’ve heard Randy Newman’s music.

Specifically, you’ve heard Newman’s “nice” music. “You’ve Got A Friend” (Toy Story), “Our Town” (Cars), “If I Didn’t Have You” (Monsters, Inc.) are all fantastic songs, and just a small sampling of Newman’s musical output in the last couple decades.

But Newman made a name for himself with his earlier work, and Trouble In Paradise actually lands us just before the halfway mark in his nearly 50-year career.

Let me start by saying that I initially liked Trouble In Paradise. There are some catchy tunes, a lot of really cool melodies, and as always, Newman’s incredibly gifted piano playing.

That being said, Trouble In Paradise is just one of many examples of how the ’80s were a pretty rough decade for the male pop singer-songwriter crowd, comparatively speaking. I can’t think of one major solo musician whose output got markedly better in the transition to the ’70s to the ’80s. Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, all guys who had a really stellar decade and then went into the ’80s and released a few stinkers among the lot of them.

Again, I don’t think Trouble In Paradise is bad, it’s just a very ’80s record. Lots of slick production, a little bombastic. The production reminds me a lot of Paul Simon’s Graceland (arguably the best ’80s album released by any of these guys, possibly rivaled only by Springsteen’s Born To Run).

I feel like the ’80s were where these guys were trying to figure out how to stay on top of the pulse of pop music and not all were equally successful. This is one issue with Trouble In Paradise. It’s got some good tunes (“The Blues” reminds me of the best of Paul Simon’s ’80s work, most likely because it features Simon himself), but there are also tunes that end up sounding almost awkward in their experimentation or reaching for new melodic structures, like “Mikey’s.” This song is so odd, it reminds me of McCartney’s completely left-field “Temporary Secretary” from his McCartney II album from 1980. Musically, I’m split down the middle on this record.

Here’s another thing about Randy Newman. He doesn’t write songs so much as eye rolls and winks. Honestly, like 90% of his songs are sarcastic. In my opinion, that’s a notable difference than satirical. Satire can be subtle, and often, the more subtle it is, the more pointed and effective it is. Sarcasm is, almost by definition, heavy-handed. Sarcasm is accompanied with an exaggerated tone of voice or body language.

And that’s the best way I can describe Randy Newman’s writing style. “My Life Is Good” and “I’m Different” are perfect examples of this. They’re all sung from the perspective of people Newman clearly has no respect for and these tunes just rip into them.

And it’s not just on this record. “Little People,” “The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band,” “Sail Away,” the entire Good Old Boys album. Newman has made a career of writing sarcasm. This is very one note, and it’s the reason I don’t come back to Newman a lot.

At the same time, the biggest thing that does keep me coming back is how confoundedly catchy his tunes are. “I Love L.A.” is arguably the most overtly sarcastic, winky song on this whole record, and it’s hands down the best tune. I first heard this done by Newman on The Tonight Show, accompanied by The Roots of all people. I liked the song a ton because it’s catchy as hell and the Roots add real panache to any old white fella they accompany, but listening to this song in its original setting adds the “Screw you L.A.” context to him playing on the New York incarnation of The Tonight Show.

This is one of the few albums of any of my blog series’ that I actually enjoyed less the more I listened to it. Aside from the couple songs that had unique/catchy hooks, the rest of the album just started to grate on me. I think it comes back to the album’s sarcastic through line. It’s hard to fully engage with an album that ends up coming off so pretentious. Newman’s a great songwriter, and if he had eased off the sarcasm and written more less-winky pop songs, I probably would’ve enjoyed this album a lot more.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. I Love L.A.
  2. My Life Is Good
  3. The Blues
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