While Randy Newman had been a songwriter for others since 1960, and he had released his debut single at the tender young age of 18 in 1962, his self titled debut album would not see the light of day until the middle of 1968.
A distinctly un-rock and roll record, Randy Newman was heavily orchestrated pop, albeit one with occasionally unsettling lyrics by one of the most intelligent songwriters of his generation. Those orchestrations can get a little over powering here and there (“Cowboy” is in danger of being utterly buried in places), and it is notable that his next album, 12 Songs, would feature a much stripped back sound, before he found the happy medium on 1972’s Sail Away.
Regardless of the occasionally overbearing orchestra, Randy Newman is chock full of some of the great man’s best songs. “Love Story (You and Me)” is heartfelt yet occasionally inappropriate, with Newman establishing his tendency to write in character to hold a mirror up to some of the less salubrious opinions and prejudices of the everyman, while often not holding those opinions himself. For some this clever-clever approach can put them off, and is probably one of the primary reasons that Newman is not held in the same esteem has Bob Dylan, arguably the only other American songwriter who has been able to match Newman for intelligent lyrics. Randy Newman expects his audience to have above average intelligence and be able to cope with the fact that just because he writes from the point of view of people with controversial opinions, it doesn’t mean he himself has those opinions. Even at this early stage of his recording career, Newman is not afraid of giving life to horrific characters, with the narrator of the closing “Davy the Fatboy” being one of the most repulsive characters in popular song.
It’s not all lyrical grotesques though. “Living Without You” is one of Newman’s most curiously romantic songs, although even then, there’s a slightly unsettling undertone. Perhaps the most striking song on the album is “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a number which had already been covered by Judy Collins, and has been covered many, many times since. That said, regardless of how many amazing vocalists have recorded version of “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today”, no one has ever managed to deliver it with the sense of heartbreakingly world weary resignation that Randy Newman himself does. It’s slightly odd that, outside of his much loved soundtrack work, Randy Newman is best known as a songwriter whose material is often covered by others to great success, yet seemingly no one can imbue his songs with more conviction than himself. Sure, there are many great cover versions of Randy Newman songs out there, but almost none match up to the man himself performing his own songs.
Randy Newman is not an album without problems, but there’s certainly enough world beating material on here for it to herald the arrival of one of the songwriting greats in just under half an hour. It’s just such a shame that those orchestrations are so overwhelming.