Bad news first: Randy Newman’s latest has only 30 minutes of new material. Perhaps Nonesuch, his record label, applied pressure to produce something new three years after signing him (his previous Nonesuch effort was the retrospective Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1). Newman has never been prolific, but almost all his work is memorable.
Harps and Angels sounds like his other albums: a few exquisite melodies and arrangements, heaps of sarcasm, diatribes against God and the unfairness of life in America, and a wistful sadness (in the later albums) about growing old.
The opening “Harps and Angels,” his “God” song, is a 12-bar blues with funny harmonic and rhythmic asides. There’s also a hint of agnosticism instead of the outright atheism Newman has projected in other songs and interviews, though perhaps I’m imagining things. The rest of the album mixes moods and timbres to nice effect, from the frenetically raggy “Laugh and Be Happy,” to the insouciance of “Easy Street,” and the Hollywood orientalia of “Korean Parents.” For those looking for more than trenchant verbal wit, the lovely “Losing You” joins the list of great Newman ballads, and “A Piece of the Pie” is an orchestral tour-de-force worthy of Kurt Weill.
“Feels Like Home,” sung earlier by Bonnie Raitt on Newman’s Faust album, is fine, but listeners unfamiliar with the earlier version have an obligation to seek it out. Raitt’s take is stone gorgeous. It makes you wonder how wonderful an entire album of Raitt/Newman collaborations would be.