RANDY NEWMAN > Harps and Angels

Randy Newman is the cranky but loveable uncle everybody ought to have. He says inappropriate things that make the rest of the family cringe, but he has a heart of gold and will tell you the truth when you need to hear it. His songs have that kind of irascible integrity about them. Harps and Angels, his first album of (mostly) new material in nine years, is a most welcome offering by an artist who should visit more often.

Label: NONESUCH
Rating: ★★★★☆

Randy Newman is the cranky but loveable uncle everybody ought to have. He says inappropriate things that make the rest of the family cringe, but he has a heart of gold and will tell you the truth when you need to hear it. His songs have that kind of irascible integrity about them. Harps and Angels, his first album of (mostly) new material in nine years, is a most welcome offering by an artist who should visit more often.

Over the past 40 years, Newman has become an American institution of sorts. He attained this position in part through his exquisitely poignant and elegantly rhythmic music, a mixture of New Orleans jazz and Aaron Copeland-like classical airs. More than anything, though, it’s his ability as a lyricist that’s earned him his place of honor-no songwriter has gotten inside the heads of the maladjusted with quite his finesse and compassion. Happily, Harps and Angels finds Randy unburdening his mind on a host of topics. With that deceptively lazy drawl of his, he insinuates his way into your confidence and tells you things about God, country, love and money that will make you laugh and squirm simultaneously.

There’s plenty about politics this time. “Laugh and Be Happy,” “A Piece of the Pie” and especially “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” (a half-spoken editorial set to a loping country beat) dissect the current national malaise with a deadly satiric blade. Newman loves to play clueless white people, which he does to the hilt on the deliberately insensitive “Korean Parents.” His skepticism about religion-heard in such earlier works as “God’s Song”-gets a slight revision in the album’s title track, a drolly-told born again experience.

As in the past, Newman balances his caustic songs with sweeter, more forgiving tunes. “Only a Girl” and “Potholes” allow Randy to portray misguided lovers and forgetful old men. “Losing You” is a simple, completely un-ironic statement of loss. “Feels Like Home” (first recorded as part of Newman’s Faust musical) closes the album on a note of tenderness and hope.

Harps and Angels has a warm, late-summer glow about it. Newman seems glad to be back among us, whatever his qualms about his fellow human beings. There is no one who can take his place.