I hate Randy Newman. Previous to me discovering his work via Lonely at the Top, I was living in blissful ignorance, occasionally putting pen to paper to scribble down a few lines of poetry or would-be lyrics for a band in need of a non musical wordsmith. I thought I was pretty damn good too. Then I heard this compilation and I realised that everything I’ve ever wanted to say, or would ever want to say through poetry had already been said by Randy Newman, in a more elegant, concise and witty manner. Bastard.
I didn’t realise it until well over a decade after I’d heard this compilation for the first time, but discovering Randy Newman fundamentally changed the way I listened to music. After years of generally enjoying music, from that moment I started to become more and more obsessed with lyrics, to the point where my enjoyment of music now often hinges on how great the lyrics are. This is Randy Newman’s fault.
Listening to Lonely at the Top, it almost demands that you don’t take things at face value – there are some genuinely unpleasant characters lurking in Newman’s output, and there are far more than most people are prepared to admit, so if you’ve come to Randy Newman through his work for Disney and Pixar, you may in for a genuine shock at how viciously cutting he can be. And while Newman may not have the most musically elegant voice, it suits his material better than anyone elses ever has, no matter how many great vocalists has covered his work down the decades. Newman imbues pathos, cynicism and bite into his songs in a way that anyone trying to cover them just cannot. It’s also fair to say that Newman’s work has a timeless quality to it in that, the odd production aside, it just doesn’t seem to date dramatically, and the DNA of Randy Newman’s music has passed through such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon through to more recent acts like The Hold Steady, whose dense-lyrics at first don’t seem to have much in common with Newman’s lyrical economy, until you realise that Newman’s narrative qualities are at the very heart of Craig Finn’s lyrics.
If the world were a just and fair place, Randy Newman would be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan. Perhaps the reason that he isn’t is that he never dumbed down his message to his audience. Newman knows that this world simply isn’t a just and fair place, as it is full of deeply unpleasant characters living nice lives that they don’t deserve, and that’s something that Newman has always spotlighted in his lyrics, and continues to to this day (his most recent album, Dark Matter, may be his most pointed release yet). Be he singing from the point of view of a slave trader, a bully, an indifferent deity or an uneducated nation only hearing what they want to hear, Randy Newman can hitch genuine unpleasantness to the most beautiful melodies, and this compilation features some, but not all, of the highlights of his career up to the date of release of this compilation.
If you’re not aware of Randy Newman’s work, then Lonely at the Top is an easy to find compilation that serves as the ideal starting point. Be warned though, appreciation of Randy Newman can result in a feeling of personal inadequacy, as there is genuinely not one weak point to be found on here.
Damn he’s good…