While I'm consistently impressed by Carl Wilson's writing over at Zoilus, I'm often baffled by his aesthetics. (For starters, I don't think I will ever be able to grok how someone can possibly prefer Destroyer to the New Pornographers. And his upcoming 33 1/3 book on Céline Dion's Let's Talk About Love seems like, well, the textbook definition of... ) But I have to give him props for going to bat for Randy Newman:
Every once in a while I get into an argument with someone in which I try to claim that Randy Newman was the most significant songwriter to follow after Bob Dylan. I do mean as a writer, not as a performer, in which regard he pales compared to dozens of others. But still I can never persuade anyone. There are other viable late-sixties and early-seventies candidates - Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Curtis Mayfield - but Newman did more than anyone to widen the palette of techniques in 1970s pop songwriting, with his uses of irony, unreliable and/or actually despicable narrators, and pastiches of classic American pop forms (which was a minor sixties post-folk trend - see Lovin' Spoonful, various "jug bands," etc. - but never done so richly and competently as Newman did it). He arguably introduced serious Brechtian techniques to the pop tradition - a little-noticed influence on Dylan, actually, but one Newman used as more than an affectation, unlike what the glam crowd (including Bowie) tended to do. He's also one of the few people to have combined comedy with rock music and not come off like an idiot or vulgarian, but he's just as effective a tragedian. Besides immediate successors in the L.A. scene, such as Steely Dan and Tom Waits, I would put Elvis Costello at the head of the line of Newman's heirs, along with Morrissey, the Magnetic Fields, and dozens of other pop ironists. You could even add the likes of Kool Keith and Eminem, though I think their play with flipside identities comes out of strategies from the histories of black music, minstrelsy etc. - a legacy that Newman has always been keenly aware of, anticipating all the recent pop scholarship and discussion on the centrality of the minstrel tradition to American pop by decades.
I don't know about "most significant post-Dylan songwriter" -- that's an impossibly tough call -- but Randy Newman is a shoe-in for both "most underrated" and "most unfairly maligned by people who have never heard a single goddamn thing he's done outside of 'Short People' and his Pixar soundtracks."
Okay, so his self-titled, mostly orchestral debut is a wildly ambitious disaster, but he started to hit his stride with 12 Songs, and thereafter gained the self-assurance and experience to make Sail Away and Good Old Boys, two of the most brilliant singer-songwriter records of the 1970s. If he hadn't subsequently gone into the family business, he would probably have become a cultishly adored Warren Zevon-like figure. Instead, he's become the preferred target of the unimaginative and talentless on YouTube.
Also, while most people thought I must have had a bowl of lead paint chips for breakfast when I compared Corey Dargel to Randy Newman (
including Corey, I'm afraid), I'm now feeling retrospectively validated by Wilson's post, which makes that Newman-Merritt-Dargel triple-bank shot seem more plausible.
UPDATE: Apparently I totally misread Corey on this. He writes: "I appreciated your comparison of me and Randy Newman. I don't know what I might have said or done to indicate otherwise."
[Thanks to Zoilus commenter Ryan Catbird for the pic.]