The sarcastic genius
That Randy Newman is one of the greatest songwriters in history should be recalled more often, especially at a time when he is remembered more for his soundtracks for Pixar films than for his incredible albums of the early 70's. Sail Away is his third and manages to combine the orchestral arrangements of his debut with the more spartan, rock sound of his second album, 12 Songs.
Newman knows at every moment how best to dress up the song, whether employing an orchestra or a small rock band with Ry Cooder's slide in the foreground, knowing how to ‘put the right clothes on’ an absolutely spectacular collection of lyrics, in which with fine irony and sarcasm he delves into his country's slave-owning past, the superficiality of fame or the most virulent attack on God and religion that anyone has ever made in the form of a piano ballad.
Newman had already written several of these songs years before recording them himself - Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear had been a hit for ex-Animals Alan Price in 1967 and Harry Nilsson had already recorded the same song and Dayton, Ohio - 1903 - but Newman was able to make a totally cohesive album, perhaps lacking the conceptual element of Good Old Boys, but achieving the best collection of songs of his career.
The album opened with one of the most brutal, the title track, which Newman described as an advertising 'jingle' written by slave traders looking to recruit naive Africans. Over a beautiful string arrangement they sing: "In America every man is free to take care of his home and his family. You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree, you're all gona be an American, sail away, sail away". It's bleakly beautiful and cruel, it's pure Newman. Then comes Lonely At The Top, a song he wrote specifically for Frank Sinatra but which Sinatra rejected, perhaps because it touched him too closely, with a swinging accompaniment, Newman made it clear: "I've been around the world, had my pick of any girl, you'd think I'd be happy but I'm not. Everybody knows my name but it's just a crazy game, oh, it's lonely at the top".
Both songs are brilliantly arranged, carefully and luxuriously, the first orchestral, the second jazzy, but Newman works just as well in short ensembles, his piano, drums and bass almost the only thing that sounds on the terrifying Last Night I Had a Dream, where Ry Cooder's Strat slide creates the appropriate atmosphere for Newman's lyrics with very few notes, serving as a perfect example of "less is more". When Newman talks about "a vampire" and "a ghost" appearing in his dream, they are present in Cooder's menacing notes.
Cooder's slide returns on the iconic You Can Leave Your Hat On, which would later become a hit for Joe Cocker, but stripped of all of Newman's fine irony. Less bluesy and more swinging, Newman is back with his piano on Political Science, an amusing farce about an American military man wanting to drop the atomic bomb on the rest of the world. Even more stripped down is the lovely Dayton, Ohio - 1903, as it has just his limited voice and piano. The album ends with the devastating God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind), in which a distant and cruel God laughs at his favourite joke, mankind: "I burn down your cities: how blind you must be, I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we, you all must be crazy to put your faith in me, that's why I love mankind, you really need me, that's why I love mankind".
Sail Away is further proof of an enormous songwriter, both in musical detail and in the most subtle and ironic lyrics ever written. His voice may not be strong, but he knows how to make the most of it, making him one of the few songwriters of the rock era who can compare in subtlety and depth to the great songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. If you've only heard him sing "you've got a friend in him" in the Toy Story saga, do yourself a favour and dive into his must-have 70s albums, Sail Away, now 50 years old, is a perfect introduction to the wonderful world of Randy Newman.