At the Bayou last night, Randy Newman ran through 15 years' worth of superbly crafted pop songs. Neither prolix nor prolific, he has always let his lyrics insinuate, confuse, release and, incidentally, inform.
His songs are suffused with cynicism and irony on the one hand, and with pathos and whimsy on the other; they are washed in sparse, yet elegant melodies that reinforce the currents of unbridled humanity and cautious optimism that make Newman an engaging eclectic.
Newman's wit was sly and dry on songs like "My Life Is Good," "It's Money That I Love" and "Rednecks," obvious and silly on "Short People, "Burn On" and "Political Science." There was a soft poignance to the Satie-like melancholy of "Still the Same Girl" and "Real Emotional Girl," with Newman's playful parlor piano assuming a precious, hymn-like intimacy.
He straddled the fence between spiritual omnipotence ("God Says (That's Why I Love Mankind)") and social impotence ("Sail Away"), and if Newman sometimes put out confusing signals on racism, elitism, sexism and chauvinism, it's just a reflection of perenially confused hearts.
Playing alone, Newman displayed a narrow dynamic range in his singing, but a large range in his composing: "Christmas in Capetown" was gaunt and caustic, while "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America" was riddled with internalized pain.
Yet Newman was just as comfortable with the burlesque spirit of "Yellow Man" and the turn-of-the-century gaiety of "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear." It's a unique middle ground between the classical and comical approaches of his uncle Alfred and Mad magazine's Alfred E., and last night's show sustained Newman's reputation for sophisticated, empathetic musicality.