35 Years Ago: Randy Newman Finds ‘Trouble in Paradise’
If artists were paid in rave reviews, Randy Newman would be one of the richest acts in rock 'n' roll. By the early '80s, however, his career had been one long study in critical acclaim, with only minimal sales — and one misunderstood novelty hit single — to show for it.
That single, "Short People," propelled Newman's fifth studio album, 1977's Little Criminals, into the Top 10 — but he failed to capitalize on that momentum with the follow-up, 1979's Born Again, which prompted a four-year hiatus. Still, even if his commercial fortunes seemed frustratingly limited, Newman retained a solid standing in the music industry — his songs remained frequent targets for artists in search of cover material, and no matter how soft his sales got, he could count on his personal relationships with the brass at longtime label Warner Bros., where his childhood pal Lenny Waronker ascended to the presidency in 1982.
Newman was, in short, an artist's artist — something reflected in the liner notes for his seventh album, Trouble in Paradise. He'd always been a magnet for other acts — Harry Nilsson devoted an entire album to Newman songs in 1970 — but even more than his previous outings, Paradise presented a who's who of superstars and studio rats, lining up everyone from Bob Seger and members of Fleetwood Mac, Toto and the Eagles to Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon and session pros like percussionist Paulinho da Costa.
The result, unsurprisingly, was Newman's slickest set of recordings to date — a collection of songs whose production aesthetic (courtesy of co-producers Waronker and Russ Titelman) stood perfectly in sync with the increasingly airbrushed state of mainstream rock. If it was a far cry from the orchestral strains of Newman's early work — and piano-based arrangements of his mid-'70s efforts — it was also a solid fit for the increasingly high-stakes cynicism that had crept into his lyrics. Always drawn to misanthropes, dishonest narrators and fundamentally flawed protagonists, Newman entered the '80s with tongue firmly in cheek — and eyes keenly attuned to the soft white underbelly of Reagan's "morning in America" message.
Although he'd later insist he started writing Trouble in Paradise without any clear goal or overarching message in mind, that thread ended up running throughout the album's dozen tracks. True to its title, it's an album that puts the listener in idyllic setting after idyllic setting — only to persistently point out the spanner in the works, the fly in the ointment, the burr under the saddle. As with much of Newman's best work, the songs aren't necessarily up front about their point of view — listen casually to first track and lead-off single "I Love L.A.," for instance, and you might as well be hearing a commercial for the City of Angels. It's only when you lean in closely that you hear Newman sing, "Look at that mountain / Look at those trees / Look at that bum over there, man, he's down on his knees."
That subversiveness echoes throughout Trouble in Paradise. "Christmas in Capetown" dispenses casual racism through the eyes of a well-heeled ignoramus; "Mikey's" finds two racists bemoaning the state of their neighborhood; "My Life Is Good" savagely lampoons the willful ignorance of the rich. Even a tender number like "Real Emotional Girl" tucks a blade beneath its beautiful melody — the singer is a self-centered creep who's too busy crooning about her love to realize he's betraying her confidence by blabbing her innermost secrets.
Its production hasn't necessarily aged well, but Trouble in Paradise collects some of Newman's sharpest, strongest work — although its quality wasn't reflected on the charts, where it peaked at a disappointing No. 64. "The Blues," a duet with Paul Simon, didn't gain much traction on the airwaves; neither did "I Love L.A.," although the latter would go on to become an evergreen favorite for music directors looking for a little jingle to sum up Los Angeles' charms. If they often failed to recognize the song's acid irony, well, Newman had to be used to it at that point.
"What interests me is character study. Fiction. It's what I choose to do, it's what I do best," he told Rolling Stone. "But I'm a good deal more open than most singer-songwriters. When you meet some of these people you think are being confessional in their work, they're not being confessional That's not what they're like. There's not an honest representation of people's personalities in their work. Not often. I think you can tell more about what I'm like by what I do than you can about a lot of people."