Out There

Old men, young chests

Bad Love
Randy Newman
DreamWorks Records

Randy Newman has always wanted to be popular; he always moans about not racking up the hits like Billy Joel or Paul Simon. He even closes Bad Love by insisting "I Want Everyone to Like Me": "I want to earn the respect of my peers," he talks-sings-groans, "if it takes a hundred years." Of course, it doesn't help that Newman's landed two novelty hits in three decades, or that it's been 11 years since his last studio album. No wonder he feels grizzled and abandoned, even looks it (no way that cover, featuring only his weary lids-down visage, is going to sell to anyone not on a strict bran diet). No wonder that when he finally sat down to write and record only his ninth non-soundtrack album in 31 years, Newman chose as his concept the soft middle of middle age; all that's missing is the Viagra ballad.

Bad Love is the result of a man in his 50s sitting down, looking back, and realizing all he's been doing is fucking up--never growing up, simply making the same mistake over and over again until habit becomes tradition. The man no longer hides behind characters till they become freaks and cartoon characters. They're him this time around--flawed creations who lie to their families; withered, "froggish men" who still can't resist the lure of a "younger chest"; and husbands who still can't quite figure out how to make love work. Hey, wife won't tell you she's hungry? "Better get a burger or something in her right away," Newman offers, dispensing his clumsy advice.

If 1988's Land of Dreams only hinted at the autobiography, with its opening chapters about four-eyed Jewboys growing up in the South, then Bad Love offers the final excerpts--the love song to an ex-wife ("I Miss You"), the story about a family that only speaks to (at?) each other through the television ("My Country"), the song written by the middle-aged musician who's still on stage even though "I have nothing left to say" ("I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)"). Listening to Bad Love is like watching a once-beautiful young man standing in front of the mirror as he counts the wrinkles and mournfully pats his round belly.

Bad Love sounds very much like a cross between Little Criminals and Toy It's the fullest-sounding album of Newman's career, its occasional excursions into rock (the Kinks-Neil Young homage-parody of "I'm Dead") and country (the rollicking "Big Hat, No Cattle") sounding less forced than ever before. Lush strings blend comfortably with L.A. guitars; sarcasm waltzes with romance; and every smile has its frown. Listen once, and it's a perfect Randy Newman record. Listen five times, and it's a perfect record.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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