It’s hard not to have heard the opening track, “I Love L.A.,” which has become the second-largest U.S. city’s theme song. Get past the gung-ho chorus, however, and you’re in satirical mode, Newman’s trademark, along with his singing in character (rather than as himself). After dissing L.A.’s foremost rival – “Hate New York City/it’s cold and it’s damp” – the protagonist celebrates the mundane experience of driving down streets, Century Boulevard, Victory Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, that are worlds away from the glitz and glamour of Broadway.
At this point, you might be wondering if Newman is the same guy who composed all those Disney soundtracks. Yes: it’s the same guy. In the 70s, he made critically acclaimed albums with complex arrangements, such as Good Old Boys (1974), that made so little money he was required to tour as a solo performer, because he couldn’t afford to hire a band. Although he’s very well off from his Disney employment, his shows last year were typically just him at his piano.
“Christmas in Capetown” shifts to a darker tonality, signaling a more ominous mood that pervades Trouble in Paradise. Three years earlier, Steely Dan’s Gaucho (1980) set the pace with slickly-produced songs concealing venomous lyrics; the closer, “Third World Man,” mocked the sentimental reaction to the news of ongoing dirty wars across the globe spurred on by U.S. foreign policy.
Newman ups the ante with “Christmas in Capetown,” a bracing antidote to the schmaltz that tortures our ears every holiday season. It’s from the perspective of an older white male Afrikaner (far from hesitant about using the N-word) coming to terms with the horrors of apartheid. At first, he reacts to how black South Africans have been historically conditioned to value Western European culture over their own: “They love our music.” But by the end of the song he can feel their anger which plunges him into a nihilistic despair: “What are we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country? I don’t know.”
The one-two punch of “I Love L.A.” and “Christmas in Capetown” sets Newman apart—he proves more adept at handling the early 80s than his peers. The fallout of making Gaucho caused a two-decade breakup between Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, the masterminds behind Steely Dan; the next official album, Two Against Nature, wouldn’t be released until 2000. Likewise, the partnership of Roger Waters and David Gilmour, architects of the classic songs from the golden era of Pink Floyd that took more than a few satirical jabs at British twits, ended for good with The Final Cut in 1983. That same year, Elvis Costello, a Newman fan and whip-smart British songwriter with a punk attitude, took a more pop approach on Punch the Clock, but with diminishing returns.
1983 was also a pivotal year for Tom Waits. Influenced by Newman, Waits had been previously known for piano-based character studies of L.A. lowlifes. Swordfishtrombones announced a major stylistic change: following the innovations of Captain Beefheart that twisted blues music into wildly free-form blasts of dissonance, Waits could further distance himself from the L.A. pop-music machine led by the likes of the Eagles (his 70s record label mates).
Yet Waits’ artistic reinvention raises a critical question: can his embrace of the blues become another example of a white cultural search for authenticity? Newman asks a similar question in a brutally hilarious song with the on-the-nose title of “The Blues,” the third track on Trouble in Paradise. Over a creamy vanilla chord progression, a promoter introduces a musical artist, voiced by Paul Simon, whose soulful singing sells his clichéd stories about past and present troubles. You only hope that Simon (who introduced Newman to a wider audience on Saturday Night Live in 1975) was let in on the joke.
As “The Blues” demonstrates, Newman could work with decidedly mainstream musicians without losing his edge. The songs on the album have a diamond sharpness, each character revealing a crucial flaw. There’s a person helplessly trapped between conflicting images of love in “Same Girl.” Worried by the unexpected departure of a female companion, an aging white man in “Mikey” despondently asks, “Whatever happened to the old songs, Mikey? Like the ‘Duke of Earl.’” An obnoxious yuppie dad, confronting a teacher about his rotten son, has delusions of having met Bruce Springsteen in “My Life Is Good,” featuring a four-bar musical parody of The Boss. And there’s the tourist from hell in “Miami,” who brags about the “Best dope in the world/And it’s free.”
Other than “I Love L.A.” and “The Blues,” which made it to #51 on the pop charts (boosted by the duet with Simon), no other songs on Trouble in Paradise came close to being as commercially successful. The song that should’ve been a hit, “Take Me Back,” is a comic gem that speeds along on a winding guitar riff and crests on an insistent chorus with spot-on backing vocals by Don Henley (of the Eagles) and Bob Seger. Telling us what he believes is a cautionary tale, an older man, after the end of an affair with a student, blames her for the destruction of his once promising career, while whining to the woman he left,“I don’t wanna live here by this dirty old airport/In this greasy little shack.”
Newman has said he wishes, at times, that his past songs could’ve been tougher. “Real Emotional Girl” more than makes up for this perceived deficiency. It doesn’t sentimentalize the regrets of the male protagonist, who, by telling us what he did to someone he used to love, further betrays her trust. From the first verse, over heart-melting chord changes, he fails to see that he’s exposed the intimate details of their relationship:
She’s a real emotional girl
She wears her heart on her sleeve
Every little thing you tell her
She really will
She even cries in her sleep
I’ve heard her
Many times before
This remarkable artistic awareness of Newman allows him to remain subtle even when he goes big. The album ends with “Song For The Dead,” a powerful indictment of the way young men were sent off to die in Vietnam. A soldier is left to bury his dead comrades, and “say a few words on behalf of the leadership.” The marital drums stop, and the mood becomes elegiac. What the lone soldier says, however, is a version of the same lie that justified their deaths, while showing its racist implications:
Now our country, boys
Though it’s quite far away
Found itself jeopardized
By these very gooks
Who lie here beside you
It’s a rather fitting way to end an album titled Trouble in Paradise: Newman was characteristically less than hopeful about how the future looked in 1983, and he has continued to document, with unflinching honesty, the decline of U.S. empire.