For more than 40 years, Randy Newman has written and sung songs that are stinging in their irony and unabashed in their sentiment, even if it isn't always immediately clear which is which. The same man who wrote the heartbreakingly beautiful "Sail Away," which slowly reveals itself as a slave trader's sales pitch, also crafted "They Just Got Married," a jaunty love song with this transition: "Anyway, she dies." Part of the pleasure of Newman's songcraft comes from never quite knowing where you stand.
That's true of the folks within Newman's songs, too. Harps And Angels, Newman's first new pop album since Bad Love in 1999, opens with a title track in which a man undergoes a near-death experience. Maybe. The angels sound like background singers, and the good advice he gets from God is pretty vague. Even when the focus shifts away from death, it's still an album concerned with legacies and transitions. Released as a single last year, "A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country" points out that the current American leaders aren't so bad in the grand scheme of things—"Take the Caesars, for example…"—before ending as a farewell to America's moment as an imperial power. A song Newman has been kicking around for a while, "Laugh And Be Happy," could pass as one of his Pixar themes, until it becomes clear he's directing the advice toward people who need to understand that the U.S. isn't about "keeping you out / it's about inviting you in and letting you play." (Or is it "pay"?)
Some of the more on-the-nose satire falls flat. "A Piece Of Pie" jumbles sellout rock stars and class disparity into its confused cacophony, and the joke of Newman's proposed solution to sagging GPAs never gets past the title: "Korean Parents." Still, heart-on-the-sleeve tracks like "Losing You" and "Feels Like Home" feature Newman at his most affecting. The latter even holds out hope for a happy ending on Earth, if not in heaven.