Way back in my late teens and into my early twenties, I fancied myself as a poet. I thought I was pretty damn good at it too. So did others actually, to the point where some of my fellow students with musical ambitions would ask me to help out on some of their more lyrically clunky self-penned material.
It all stopped from the moment that I discovered the work of Randy Newman and it dawned on me that everything I’ve ever wanted 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 years later, but discovering Randy Newman fundamentally changed the way I listened to music too. After years of generally enjoying music 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.
After eleven years of keeping up the family tradition of writing soundtracks and musicals, Randy Newman finally returned to studio albums in 1999 with Bad Love and it’s probably fair to say that his small but loyal fanbase really didn’t know what to expect. Newman’s last studio album had been Land of Dreams, where Newman had broken his habit of a lifetime and recorded a series of autobiographical songs. His Faust musical in the early 90s had been an interesting diversion, but it hardly set the world alight. On the upside his soundtrack work had indicated he was still capable of brilliance, particularly his work on a range of Disney / Pixar films.
To give Bad Love a contemporary edge Newman recruited the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, an interesting choice, but hardly the obvious guys to produce one of the finest songwriters in the history of popular music. Could it have been that Randy Newman was trying to appeal to a young(er) audience by recruiting hip young(ish) producers?
At the end of the days all these fears were unfounded as Bad Love proved to be the best Randy Newman album since Sail Away over a quarter of a century previously. It found Newman on bitter, grumpy, sarcastic and quite brilliant form, telling backing singers to shut up (“Shame”), lamenting lost loves (the genuinely touching “Every Time It Rains” and “I Miss You”) and sarcastically searching for acceptance from his peers (“I Want Everyone To Like Me”). Newman’s vocals sound fantastic throughout, as he’s one of the few singers whose voice has actually improved with age – his songs have always sounded better the more world-weary and cynical the vocals are.
Bad Love is an album that looks back over a life lived. These are not songs written by an old timer in a desperate attempt to sound relevant to a young audience, this is the sound of a great songwriter with his creative marbles very much intact, which is something which very few musicians his age have managed. Indeed Newman takes a swing at desperate old acts operating on auto pilot in the mock-rocking “I’m Dead And I Don’t Know It” (“Each record that I’m making, Is like a record I have made, Just not as good”). One can only hope that acts that have been trading on former glories for far too long take note. “Big Hat, No Cattle” indeed.
This said, there are moments where Newman’s quality control does slip a little, with both “The Great Nations Of Europe” and “The World Isn’t Fair” both being surplus to requirements and neither quite fitting into the broad theme of the album, despite both of them being lyrically clever. I for one would have welcomed a return to the brevity of Newman’s 70s albums, where his albums were rarely longer than half an hour and always left the listener wanting more.
These are minor quibbles though. Bad Love is an album that reminds you that Bob Dylan really did have genuine competition in the elder statesman of American singer songwriter stakes. And you know something? He still does.