Instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a major motion picture in the last 35 years, Randy Newman’s mellow Southern California croon has long called to mind dependable friendships and lazy summer afternoons. But his point of view is currently far from comforted, and on his first album in a decade the awards-show perennial showcases the jazzy, meticulously arranged style by which he made his name as an inimitable songwriter-for-hire while simultaneously re-establishing himself as the foremost purveyor of unfiltered piano protest.
Angels boasts a few love songs (“Only a Girl” and “Feels Like Home”) as well as numbers that belie the trepidation the 64-year-old feels concerning aging. The solemn regret of “Losing You” and forgotten memories of “Potholes,” however, are far secondary to Newman’s biggest concern: the direction in which his country is heading. Though he satirically leads the Dixieland march of “A Piece of the Pie” and advises listeners to “Laugh and Be Happy,” it’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” that sharply evokes a storied global history of dictators, conspirators and religion-sanctioned terror. When he mourns, “In times like these/We sure could use a friend,” it could easily pass for Disney dialogue. That there’s not much to depend on anymore makes Newman’s troubled tales more in need of happy endings than anything else he’s done to date.
The bottom line: ***1/2