We continue to examine the Seventies albums of Art Garfunkel, one song at a time. We haven’t gotten far; and tonight, we won’t get much further.
All of these entries will reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, their author’s prejudices and blind spots.
Perhaps none will do so more than today’s post, which brings us into contact with a famous American musical figure (not Art Garfunkel) whose critical belovedness has always befuddled me.
Quite simply, I have never really gotten Randy Newman.
I’ve never taken to the affected mouthful-of-biscuits drawl he uses as a singing voice. I’ve never gotten past the notion that a number of his songs (of the ones I’ve bothered to hear) sound much the same in construction and arrangement.
And most of all, I’ve never warmed to his particular brand of wit — call it cynical, sarcastic, mordant, or whatever word you choose.
I understand what he’s shooting for, more or less, but for some reason, neither the jokes nor the craftsmanship impress me.
(OK, one song of his I liked: “Kingfish,” from the only Newman album I have ever owned, 1974’s Good Old Boys. In writing a triumphant anthem for a long-dead demagogue, Newman created a rousing piece of historical fiction; plus I love the opening lines about the hundred thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans. So, yeah. One song.)
So many of his songs are warped, twisted, barbed, and skewed that it makes me wonder how I’m supposed to take them and what, or if, I’m supposed to believe.
Are they parodies? Parodies of parodies? Is he laughing at the person who’s narrating, or the person who’s listening, or the people who are offended by the entire crux of the song, or everybody at once? (viz. “Short People.”)
I’ve just never felt that his melodic, musical or vocal gifts reward the work I put into figuring out where he might be coming from. (Pretty much all of the world’s professional music writers seem to have no trouble with this, for what that’s worth.)
Consider “Old Man,” from one of Newman’s most highly regarded albums, 1972’s Sail Away.
Is it meant to be an unsentimental, cut-the-crap reminder that everyone dies afraid and alone (and, by extension, a jab at soft, glossed-over presentations of death)?
Taking the song’s monologue structure at face value, is it a mocking character sketch of the kind of clod who would barge in on an old man’s deathbed and remind him that his passing makes no difference in the grand scheme of things? Are we supposed to recoil from the narrator’s cruelty?
Is it meant to split the difference between those first two possibilities — to suggest that the narrator, however rude and blunt he may seem, is serving truth and honesty more than anyone else in (or outside) the room?
Or does the song perhaps represent the internal narrative in the mind of somebody — a dutiful nephew, say — who’s saying all the right things out loud?
I’m probably supposed to find that ambiguity intriguing … but in reality, I’ve given it about as much thought as I feel like giving it, and now I’m going upstairs to listen to Chuck Berry sing “Sweet Little Sixteen” a couple of times.
I will say this: While “Old Man” doesn’t overmuch move me, it inspired Art Garfunkel to give a nuanced and dynamic performance — a showcase display of his vocal talent.
In particular, our hero wrings every ounce of emotion out of the final verse. Check out how the line “You taught me not to believe that lie” spreads out and gets wings, and how Art’s voice catches in a gasp on the last word.
So, if this is a cruel song at heart, but it’s sung with full-throated passion by unironic babyface Art Garfunkel, what does that ambiguity represent?