Randy Newman – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Sail Away”
The Album First Came Out on May 23, 1972
May 23, 2022
Randy Newman’s lyrical ferocity has always underscored his lush orchestral soundscapes, their rich and intricate pop melodies juxtaposed with grim narratives of dysfunctional personalities, including unrepentant bigots, lushes, television junkies, child murderers, warmongers, and ultimately, Vladimir Putin. Newman’s uncanny ability to aptly expose these damaged psyches for critical consideration through his music has always accounted for much of his charm, as has an expanse of pop cultural and political knowledge as great as his musical education. Accordingly, his tongue is sharp, words biting, and observations sparing not a soul. The clarity of Newman’s career-long vision places him alongside the likes of Ambrose Bierce as a timeless American satirist whose apocalyptic tendencies highlight an artistic articulacy, with the prolific singer/songwriter’s third album and ultimate masterpiece Sail Away serving as his own Devil’s Dictionary.
There have been controversial instances throughout Newman’s career, such as the respective releases of 1974’s “Rednecks” and 1977’s “Short People,” in which outraged critics failed to recognize the joke, assuming the lyrics to reflect the artist’s personal sentiments. This, above all, attests to the effectiveness of Newman’s songwriting technique, his devotion to the music and its characters, however grotesque, unwavering, with his sarcasm often subtle enough to momentarily stump the listener. Newman’s satirical wit is no better exemplified than on Sail Away’s classic opening title track, which takes the form of a proposition made by an American slave trader as he attempts to lure a prospective slave onto his ship, the former pitching: “In America you’ll get food to eat/Won’t have to run through the jungle/And scuff up your feet/You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day/It’s great to be an American.” The track’s romantically baroque lilt aptly accentuates its narrator’s deceitful descriptions of American slave life, Newman delivering them with straight-faced condescension. Satire, by nature, boldly addresses the often tragic phenomenon of history and inherent wickedness of humankind, with such efforts as Newman’s successfully poking holes in the various superstitions of exceptionalism, allowing for necessary critical reevaluation. That Newman has always done so under the guise of irresistibly appealing pop music renders Sail Away all the more impressive.
A similar tone is employed on the subsequent “It’s Lonely at the Top,” on which its superstar narrator, despite his astounding wealth and notoriety, laments the emptiness within his soul, confessing, “I’ve been around the world/Had my pick of any girl/You’d think I’d be happy/But I’m not.” One of the album’s most underrated tracks, “He Gives Us All His Love” delves even deeper than its predecessors, finding Newman, an avowed atheist, crafting a deceptively lovely tribute to God, proclaiming, “He knows how hard we’re trying/He hears the babies crying/He sees the old folks dying/And he gives us all his love.” In this particular instance, Newman’s sly “wink and nudge” are less apparent, the track’s gentle melody and assurance that “if you need someone to talk to/You can always talk to him/And if you need someone to lean on/You can lean on him” seemingly excusing the utter absurdity of God’s voyeurism as he observes humanity’s anguish without intervening. Ironically, the track has been covered by born-again Christians Wanda Jackson and Sherie Rene Scott. The surreal “Last Night I Had a Dream” serves as the album’s first rocker, Newman adopting an edgy blues inflection as he recounts: “Everyone that I know/And everyone that you know was in my dream/I saw a vampire/I saw a ghost/Everybody scared me you scared me the most,” while “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” explores Newman’s fascination with ragtime, a style to which he has often returned throughout his career.
Sail Away’s finest entries arrive in succession, beginning with the devastating “Old Man,” which remains one of Newman’s most tender ballads and bears some sonic resemblance to 1974’s exceptional “Marie.” Here, a son comforts his withering father on the latter’s deathbed, offering harsh but necessary truths in preparation for his departure: “Won’t be no god to comfort you/You taught me not to believe that lie/You don’t need nobody/And nobody needs you/Don’t cry old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.” Newman has stressed this point on multiple occasions, emphasizing the cosmos’ vast indifference to humanity’s existence and ultimate plight, though it remains perhaps the single truth much of humanity cannot hear for the terrifying loneliness it elicits. Returning to the album’s darkly humorous tone, “Political Science” is the screed of a hawkish theorist, who submits for consideration: “No one likes us—I don’t know why/We may not be perfect, but Heaven knows we try/But all around even our old friends put us down,” before suggesting, “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” The song is a wonderful parody of the United States’ increasingly militant tendencies during the Vietnam era, which continue to result in bouts of authoritarian paranoia, embodied in lines such as, “We give them money—But are they grateful/No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful/They don’t respect us—so let’s surprise them/We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.” One of Newman’s finest songs, “Political Science” remains a musical touchstone of his early career, as well as a relevant examination of a particularly nasty national mentality.
“Burn On,” one of modern pop’s most astounding compositions, transports the listener to Cleveland, OH, addressing the city’s Cuyahoga River, which caught fire numerous times throughout the 1950’s and ’60s as a result of chemical pollution—most notably in 1969, when the occurrence made the national news. Here, Newman observes of the river, “Now the Lord can make you tumble/And the Lord can make you turn/And the Lord can make you overflow/But the Lord can’t make you burn.” When he sings, “Cleveland, city of light, city of magic,” the track’s sweeping strings underscore his tongue in cheek descriptions of the Midwestern industrial metropolis, blurring the line between irony and sincerity, overwhelming the senses with an air of aching beauty. Crossing to the state’s western end, “Dayton, Ohio – 1903,” depending on how one wishes to interpret it, appears to both pine for the innocence of a pre-WWI Middle America and mock the illusion of “good old days” nostalgia, to which the public remains ever partial. Despite its likely facetious tone, however, there exists a certain wistfulness in Newman’s lyrics, as he sings of a time when “things could grow and days flowed quietly/The air was clean and you could see/And folks were nice to you.” Elsewhere, the overtly comedic “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is prime Newman, finding the singer exploring the erotically absurd, while dour closing track “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” returns to Abrahamic mythology, Newman adopting the voice of the Supreme Being himself. In contrast to that of “He Gives Us All His Love,” the God of Newman’s design is a God whom history has repeatedly revealed: a blatant sadist, as repulsed by human beings as human beings are by one another. “Man means nothing,” God proclaims. “He means less to me/Than the lowliest cactus flower.”
Not only is Sail Away among the greatest albums of its decade, it also stands among those of all time. Its significance has been acknowledged by critics, as well as Newman’s own peers, with his fellow Los Angeles pop maestro Brian Wilson having declared it a seminal release, crediting its sound with temporarily easing the pains brought by his much-publicized battle with mental illness. As a composer, Newman is deserving of Wilson’s praise, as his pop intuition is remarkable. Sail Away serves as the first installment in a trilogy of musical masterpieces, continuing with 1974’s Good Old Boys and concluding with 1977’s Little Criminals, on which Newman would further explore his signature themes, developing even more villains and underdogs through whom he could reflect a culture’s creeping decay and ultimate failure. Listen to Sail Away and consider both the mastery of its craftsmanship and validity of its message—and, most importantly, welcome its unpleasantries, no matter how bitter the tone.
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