We live in a time when details about the private lives of writers and musicians threaten to overshadow their work. This is even more true in rock ‘n’ roll, where, as Neil Young tells us, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When the lives of cult heroes are brief and tragic, as in the case of Nick Drake for instance, or Ian Curtis, it’s even harder to tell the singer from the song.
Many artists play into this state of affairs by choosing a confessional mode of song-writing, sometimes producing works of genius by transforming their personal experiences into art. Everyone now knows that Joni Mitchell’s Green concerns the birth of the child she gave up for adoption as a very young woman. Everybody knows that Leonard Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel #2 about his relationship with Janis Joplin, and knowing these things gives us a feeling of power, of sharing in an intimate secret.
And so the songs of Randy Newman come as a sublime shock: they are often written from a first-person perspective, but we are not meant to identify with these voices, at least not in any comfortable way. “No one likes us - I don’t know why”, the speaker in Political Science begins, speaking for a disgruntled America, and concludes: “They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now.” In God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind), the God-speaker turns out to be a sadist, and the charming salesman of Sail Away, the album from which all these examples are taken, is a slave-trader (“You just sing about Jesus, drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American”).
What makes these songs so compelling is the way Newman creates multi-dimensional characters: for a moment the argument of Political Science seems so reasonable; God’s contempt of gullible mankind seems almost justified.
The result is that we do feel an affinity with such characters, but we are disturbed by our understanding of them. It is as if we are seeing ourselves through a mirror that exaggerates our fear and prejudice.
Tom Waits is another Los Angeles songwriter who has literally explored other voices, often by expanding his own into a Babel of shouts, whispers and everything in between. This enables him to speak for characters from the margins of society, often from surprising angles: on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, the aching tenderness of Soldier’s Things, which describes the contents of a box of goods, feels almost shockingly innocent, while the matter-of-factness of Frank’s Wild Years, which ends with the respectable Frank driving away and putting on top 40 station after having torched his house and watched it burn, seems to pass without a tremor, which makes it all the more impossible to forget.
Songs such as these don’t make us feel in control. They invite us into worlds full of shadows and distorting mirrors. After listening to them for a while, even the most sincerely confessional song will be hard to trust. All great songwriters are ventriloquists to a greater or lesser extent, and who can say whose voice comes through when they say “I?” It could be a version of yours or mine.