Randy Newman has been busy writing for the movies--he had three Oscar nominations this year alone--but the release last year of a four-CD Rhino retrospective, "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman," rekindled interest in his pop songs and set the stage for "Bad Love" (DreamWorks), the merry misanthrope's first collection of new songs since 1988's "Land of Dreams."
The album kicks off with a classic Newmanism, "My Country," in which a bitter old man chronicles his long-term emotional isolation and escape into television, "watching other people living . . . having other people's voices fill our minds." Against martial orchestral flourishes reminiscent of "In America," he then complains about his children intruding on his solitude:
. . . they all live alone now
They have TVs of their own
They keep on coming over anyway
As much as I love them
I'm always kind of glad when they go away.
The not-welcome wagon also serves Karl Marx, the subject of an open letter/complaint, "The World Isn't Fair," in which Newman catalogues the failures of Marxist ideology after going to a grade school orientation and being surrounded by trophy wives married to "men much like me/ Froggish men, unpleasant to see/ Were you to kiss one Karl/ Nary a prince would there be."
Newman's corrosive commentary--think Tom Lehrer with much greater musical range and resources--reaches its apex with "The Great Nations of Europe," a bleak history of Manifest Destiny:
Columbus sailed for India
Found Salvador instead
He shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead
They got TB and typhoid and athlete's foot
Diphtheria and the flu
Excuse me--Great Nations coming through!"
Less abrasive but just as biting is "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," which spoofs rock stars who continue to record and tour long after their expiration dates ("I've nothing left to say/ but I'm going to say it anyway"). There's also the endearingly pathetic "I Want Everyone to Like Me."
As its title implies, the album includes several takes on love, from the decidedly bitter "The One You Love" and "Better Off Dead" to the maudlin melancholy of "Every Time It Rains" and "I Miss You," directed by Newman to his first wife, long departed and remarried. It's a genuinely tender thanks-with-apologies. "I wanted to write you one/ Before I quit/ And this one's it," Newman sings gently, reminding us once again of the soft heart within the hard shell.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.)
CAPTION: Randy Newman, hiding a tender heart inside a tough shell on "Bad Love."