Sunday, 24 January 2016

Songwriter Sunday: Why I Think Randy Newman Is Great (and You Should Too)

 By Marshall Jacklin

To me, something that makes a song truly great is its ability to remain so when performed by artists other than the original writer. There is something about this ability that a rare few are able to transcend, to mean so many things in these different takes, and yet also remain true to the original intent. Many of the songs of Randy Newman have had this capacity, which is, I think, the highest compliment a piece of popular music can receive. In fact, there have been numerous albums by artists performing only Newman songs, my personal favorites being Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Sings Newman and Roseanna Vitro's The Music of Randy Newman. There is only a royal group of artists who have received the honor of having their songs reproduced in this manner. 

Take for example the exquisite Losing You, which is one of the most profoundly moving songs I've ever heard. It has been done by many and in as many ways, but no matter what, the heart of the music shines through clear as a bell. Some outstanding versions of this tune are Mavis Staple's and Jamie Cullum's

When you're young, and there's time, you forget the past,
You don't think that you will, but you do,
But now I don't have time enough,
And I'll never get over losing you

Probably his most covered work, I Think It's Going To Rain Today, has become almost like a modern day standard, having be recorded by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Barbra Streisand. With the perfect word painting it contains, it is almost unstoppable:

Broken windows, and empty hallways,
A pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey,
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it's going to rain today

Newman's writing introduced me to the idea of narrative form in lyrics, that there can be a solid story, and that 'I' does not have to mean me (the singer), but can be a character that me, as the singer, is portraying just as an actor would in a movie. Songs of his like Marie, Love Story, and Old Man, where the narrator is a less than desirable person,clearly point out this stylistic trademark.

A lot of people rag on Newman for being too ironic, character driven, and funny (and funny he can be; Short people got no reason to live!), but I think he balances it all out with a healthy dose of reality.

Everybody wants to be the good guy, the non-guilty victim of a lyric, but how often are we actually that in real life? I'd bet more times than not, most of us are on the lower end of the moral spectrum. His writing is still completely emotional, it just doesn't come with an invitation to the pity party. 

Oh, and by the way, is there any song that has better traveled the course of childhood to adulthood than You've Got A Friend In Me? It means more to me each passing year; that's the mark of a great song. 

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