Standing in a piano store one recent afternoon on 58th Street in midtown Manhattan, about a block away from Carnegie Hall, Randy Newman looks like he could be a character from one of his songs. He slouches slightly. A crooked grin and mildly wandering left eye conspire to bestow an air of loucheness about him. And he talks much like he sings, in a casual meandering way. When I mention to him that his new record, "Harps and Angels," is only the third studio album he's recorded in 20 years, he answers: "I've been doing movies, but it's no excuse, really. There's still time. Though I will say in my defense—it's not an adequate defense—but when you do music for motion pictures, you have to be working all the time. So when you're not doing it, you don't want to do anything at all. So there is that."
The store we have chosen for this meeting is called Faust Harrison (a happy accident given that Newman adapted Goethe's morality play in 1995 as a musical called "Randy Newman's Faust"), and it is a premier restorer of prewar Steinway pianos. Newman is soft-spoken and exudes a laid-back southern California charm. Even as he geeks-out over antique instruments, he can't help being funny. He stops at a hand-carved piano with rosewood cabinets of the same vintage that Franz Liszt supposedly once owned. Newman plays a New Orleans style shuffle that morphs into Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." He stops, shakes his head. "No," he says. "I'm embarrassed enough to do that in public. That piano's amazing." He gets up and marvels at an 1888 model. Plays a few church chords. Points at the Steinway's fat little legs and says, "My Uncle Bob had legs like that."
It is this proclivity for syncopated humor that has defined his work since his self-titled 1968 debut. Ask any non-Newman fan to trace his career arc, and they'll probably be able to come up with his fluke 1978 novelty hit "Short People," his work on a few movies ("Monsters Inc.," maybe "Toy Story"), and spoofs on him in "Family Guy." But the fact that Newman has cultivated a lucrative, Oscar-winning sideline by writing schmaltzy tunes for movies has afforded him the ability to say whatever he wants on his own records, without worrying about the fallout. "People like straight-ahead, direct love songs," he tells me. "That's what 95 percent of songs going back to 1800 have been. If I wanted to sell millions of records and be famous, I made a mistake in being less direct than Neil Diamond, who America loves. They're not going to love someone underhanded like me."
He's got a point: this country doesn't always digest satire too well. Just last month an illustration on the cover of The New Yorker magazine that pilloried how critics have characterized Barack Obama—as a fist-bumping flag-burning terrorist married to a militant Angela Davis-type—yielded howls of outrage from both political parties. Still, other people have had hits with Newman's songs, even weird ones. Newman says that when Joe Cocker or Tom Jones sing "You Can Leave Your Hat On" they do it in a higher key and make it sound sexy. The way he sings it, it's a little disturbing.
Newman uses his underhandedness well throughout "Harps and Angels." He ponders aging and mortality, as befits a 64-year-old man. On the title song, St. Peter sends the narrator back to Earth over a "clerical error" with an earful of advice; "Potholes" is a true story about the gaps in his father's memory; in the jaunty "She's Only a Girl" an older man suddenly realizes why his beautiful young girlfriend wants him: for his money. "You wonder at all these guys," says Newman, settling in behind a more modern, early 1940s piano. "You think some 19-year-old wants some 50- or 60-year-old guy all on top of them? I tell you, there's a lot of women who married old guys and when Viagra got invented it was a bad break for them."
Newman also uses humor to viciously scathing effect on "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and "A Piece of the Pie," borderline angry message songs, on which the line between Randy Newman and one of his off-kilter narrators begins to blur a bit. "A Few Words" was actually released as a YouTube video in January 2007. Newman was filmed sitting behind his piano, listing all the historical world leaders who could be described as considerably worse than the current administration ("Hitler! Stalin! Men who need no introduction.") But the elaborate new arrangement on "Harps and Angels," all slathered in strings, seems to rob the YouTube version of its immediacy and some of its edge. I suggest as much to him and he shrugs genially. "I don't think the stuff on it hurts the song," he says. "Maybe it didn't help it much, but it didn't hurt it."
Perhaps he was saving his edge for "Korean Parents," a scorching piece of satire that attacks generalizations about Asian students who excel at school. In a preemptive strike against any potential backlash (like the one he got, insanely, for "Short People"), Newman issued a video on his label's Web site in which he attempts to defend the song. "I walk the line to see where it's offensive," he tells me. Perhaps, but he clearly relishes poking you in the eye—right before delivering a lovely ballad like "Feels Like Home," which closes out the album.
It's an immensely gratifying CD, one that recalls his early work without mimicking it. "My voice is sort of blues-oriented; it's what I do best. I'm more comfortable singing shuffles and stuff that people won't like," he says. Well, then, since he's so comfortable making people uncomfortable, I ask him, can we perhaps expect his next record to come out before another decade ticks by? Newman faces the piano and strikes a few solemn ecclesiastical chords. "I swear on the health of my children," he intones, "that I will have another album out in two years." Here's hoping he's even more of a curmudgeon in 2010.