Greil Marcus has said that Randy Newman "uses the familiarity of
[evocative movie] music to set us in the moods and situations the music
automatically calls up."
On Bad Love, the musical settings are the most familiar of his
career. From Gilbert & Sullivan pomp on the ecological imperialism aria
"The Great Nations of Europe" (RealAudio excerpt) to a some-enchanted-evening lilt on the lethal "Better Off Dead" (RealAudio excerpt), even the most casual listener will have little problem sussing out the precise aim of these songs' aesthetic strategies. Whether or not that listener will understand that the "Better Off Dead" lyric "Put some real mileage between yourself and the object of your love" is as literal a summation of Newman's message as he's ever mustered, is another matter entirely.
Bad Love is the richest record I've heard so far this year, even better than the Latin Playboys' Dose (1999). But it's not as good as their eponymous 1994 debut, because that album does what quintessential '90s music does makes sense of our polluted cultural environment. And it does so by stealing taking disparate artistic expressions of moods and situations and throwing them together into a rhythmic and emotional whole made all the more kinetic and affecting by the literalness, the familiarity of the steals.
Ironically, that's why Newman will never be an absolute fave of mine. As a child of the '80s and '90s, I need music that illuminates how familiarity itself is ridden with equal parts anxiety and exhilaration. And the familiarity of Bad Love just isn't as familiar as, say, an outright sample.
"Shame" (RealAudio excerpt)
is a brilliant song, but couldn't the tension have come out just as fiercely maybe even more so with a snippet of Shirley & Co.'s disco fave "Shame Shame Shame"? That might call up ideas in the '90s listener even more automatically than the Fats Domino/ Broadway mode in which Bad Love is stuck.
Still, there's new poignancy to Newman's work. And that's brought to the fore, perhaps thanks to the production artistry of the Latin Playboys' Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who've made their names articulating the sonic palettes of Bonnie Raitt and Suzanne Vega.
Michael Jackson turned down "Every Time It Rains" because "You Are Not Alone" suited his universal shtick better. Now in his mid-fifties, Newman feels alone and takes back his song with a resigned bitterness foreign to Jackson.
When linked with the old-lech outrageousness of "Shame" or the naked-ex-husband confessional of "I Miss You" or the naked-artist confessional of "I Want Everyone to Like Me" ... well, Bad Love forms one of the most devastating portraits of aging ever recorded.