Monday, July 24, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #79 - Randy Newman - Sail Away (1972)

These days, Randy Newman has devolved into a somewhat cloying composer of soundtracks for children’s movies, but there was a time when he had one of the sharpest pens in the songwriting world. Sail Away is the perfect balance between caustic cynicism and heartfelt piano ballads, where you are never quite sure to what extent he is kidding.

The title track, Sail Away, is nuquestionably the album’s masterpiece, composed as a sales pitch by an African slave trader to his victims. The singer paints a picture of America as a wonderful place of freedom and opportunity, never tipping his hand that what he has in mind is enslavement and hard labor. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to hear it as uplifting and honest, missing the dark cynicism entirely. This is a pattern on the album, where it's hard for the listener to know quite where the joke is, or if there even is one.

Political Science is a hilarious mock-suggestion for dropping nuclear weapons on the rest of the world for frivolous reasons, only sparing Australia because we "don't want to hurt no kangaroos." Joking about the end of the world with a completely straight face is exactly the level of darkness you should expect from the young Newman, and it's immensely satisfying to listen to.

Not every piece is so lighthearted, however. That’s Why I Love Mankind is jarring in its relentlessly harsh critique of religion. It’s the only song on the album that seems to come from a real emotional place, only the emotion is white hot anger directed at no less a person than God himself. Regardless of how you feel about the song’s message, it’s a powerful closer to the album.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, we're forced to wonder whether He Gives Us All His Love, a seemingly plainspoken rejoicing in God's benevolence, is sincere. It sounds like it, and on any other record you'd be forced to accept it for what it appears to be. But in the context of an album with That’s Why I Love Mankind, it’s hard to believe it. Maybe the joke is that “giving love” while allowing terrible things to happen is an empty gesture, or maybe Newman can just see two sides of the story.

Elsewhere, Lonely At the Top makes arrogance charming and You Can Leave Your Hat On is baffling in its absurdity. But the album is not without misses. Old Man, Memo to My Son, and Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear are not especially memorable. Still, it's hard to resent a few duds in an otherwise sterling collection of tunes.

Listening to Sail Away in the 21st century, I have to admit that I miss the old Randy Newman. At some point he lost his edge (and perhaps some of his bitterness) and became just another vanilla film composer. But it's important for people to remember that as a songwriter, his legacy contains a lot more greatness than Toy Story or Family Guy parodies could ever hint at.

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