Randy Newman Wielding a Lyrical Scalpel to Deliver a Pointed Political Message


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Of all the assessments of the Bush administration that have been set to pop music, few are as deadpan as Randy Newman's song “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," which Mr. Newman released last year on iTunes and has included on his first album of new material in nearly a decade, Harps and Angels (Nonesuch).

Over the kind of stately piano arrangement he's known for, Mr. Newman, 64, calmly sings that “the leaders we have/While they're the worst that we've had/Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen." This is purposely faint praise, and Mr. Newman goes on to compare President Bush favorably to “the Caesars," Hitler, Stalin and King Leopold II of Belgium.

Recently, in the cocktail lounge of the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park, Mr. Newman sipped a coffee and explained his criteria for evaluating world leaders. “They are much worse than George Bush," he said, referring to Stalin and the others. “The joke is -- of course, you tell what the joke is and it kills the joke -- that the guy has to range very far afield to find anyone worse."

Mr. Newman supports Senator Barack Obama's candidacy and is scheduled to perform in Denver on Sunday at a delegate event preceding the Democratic National Convention. Along with a band of prominent New Orleans musicians that will also include Irma Thomas, he will sing “Louisiana 1927," his 1974 song about the poor government response to a historic flood that became an anthem in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“People can draw their own conclusions," said Bill Taylor, executive director of the music-oriented New Orleans charity Tipitina's Foundation, which was asked by the Democrats to organize performances for the party. “You just listen to the song and it feels like it was written for that occasion."

Mr. Newman spent his early childhood in New Orleans before his family moved to Los Angeles and has cited the city's music as a major influence, but he makes an odd choice for convention entertainment. He prefers to wield a lyrical scalpel rather than a hammer, and he blends humor and politics in ways few songwriters would dare. While most singer-songwriters perform with a confessional tone, Mr. Newman usually sings as a character, often one far removed from his own life. He inhabited a Dr. Strangelove-like madman in his 1972 song “Political Science" and a slave trader trying to entice Africans to the New World in the same year's “Sail Away." As these examples might suggest, many of Mr. Newman's characters are unreliable narrators, designed for the purposes of satire.

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