Listening to The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1, there’s probably a case to be made for him being one of the all time great American songwriters.
It’s always been something of a mystery to me just why Randy Newman rarely receives the appropriate praise for his not insignificant contributions to popular song. Granted he is primarily recognised as a songwriter and arranger, rather than a performer in his own right, and Newman’s studio album output has been sporadic to say the least, but his relatively sparse output has ensured that, viewed as a whole, Newman’s output is among the strongest and most consistent of anyone working within the realms of popular music.
The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1 is not a best-of, but it is a retrospective in a sense, as it consists of simple piano and vocal reworkings of songs from throughout Randy Newman’s career, ranging from early classics like “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, to his more recent soundtrack instrumentals (“When She Loved Me” is originally from Toy Story 2). This was actually a smart move on Newman’s part as he has always excelled within the vocal and piano format, as the Live album proved back in 1971. This stripped down approach has always revealed hidden facets to Newman’s songs, and the fact that he is one of the few recording artists whose voice has actually improved with time (or at least not got significantly worse), means that the versions of the songs here are something really rather special.
While there are a couple of songs on The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1 that I would personally have omitted (“The World Isn’t Fair” and “The Great Nations Of Europe”) in favour of some of my personal favourites (“Short People” and “Davy the Fat Boy”), the overall quality of this collection is little short of astounding. Much of the credit for this should go to producer Mitchell Froom, who had also worked his magic on Newman’s previous studio album, Bad Love. There are even some songs that have been given a whole new lease of life with the reworkings on The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1, chiefly “It’s Money That I Love” and “In Germany Before The War”.
So why isn’t Randy Newman discussed in the same breath as Bob Dylan as the greatest American songwriter ever? He’s certainly the most intelligent, witty and dead-pan. Yes his love of writing songs from the point of view of characters it’s impossible to sympathise with has probably prevented him from gaining traction with potential fans, but he always made intelligent observations that made the listener think about their own opinions on the subject. As a performer, even though the plethora of cover versions are more famous than the original versions, Newman always instilled a world-weary cynicism and edginess in his songs that no one else ever managed to emulate.
If you’re looking for a primer to the work of Randy Newman, then The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1 is a solid choice, given that the songs are taken from all parts of his career, but are all recorded using the same stripped back method that highlights the strength of the songs themselves.
So is Randy Newman one of the all time great American songwriters? Yeah, of course he is.