Warner Bros. Records, released January 1983
One of the recurring themes of Randy Newman’s interviews seems to be the question of how long songwriters can maintain high-quality work. He frequently compares himself to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Don Henley and Paul Simon, wondering if he’s keeping pace. Trouble In Paradise proved that he was certainly keeping up in the ’80s, if not outstripping all of them.
After somewhat of a commercial breakthrough with 1977’s Little Criminals, Randy came seriously unstuck with the 1979 follow-up, Born Again. It featured a few minor classics but seemed rushed and controversial for controversy’s sake. So a lot was riding on 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, and it certainly delivered; song for song, it equals Sail Away or Little Criminals.
I have loved Randy’s music since I was in my teens. My dad would regularly play a track which had a lyric about a strange woman sitting in a rocking chair (‘A Wedding In Cherokee County‘). Once I had identified who was singing this brilliant and beguiling song, I went back and found as much music as I could, as you do.
Trouble In Paradise was the first one that really bent my ear. Randy unleashes a parade of shucksters, hucksters, bigots, junkies and unreliable narrators that would be right at home in a David Mamet play or Coen Brothers movie. In a neat irony, he also used the cream of the LA session elite (Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Nathan East, Steve Lukather, various Eagles and Fleetwood Macs) to sugar-coat his short stories; Trouble is one of the best-sounding bad-vibes albums in rock history, alongside Frank Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
Randy almost had a second hit single with the deceptively cheery ‘I Love LA’. I love the Cole Porter-style intro which leads into an ironic, ambivalent comment on the American Dream and some of its discontents. ‘Christmas In Cape Town’ is a disturbing portrait of Apartheid-era South Africa apparently written under the influence of Nadine Gordimer’s books. This song has haunted me for many years mainly because its images are unforgettable but also because I’ve never quite understood the perspective (or location) of the narrator.
‘The Blues’ is a wry, sprightly duet with Paul Simon which pokes fun at the plight of the oversensitive singer-songwriter, though Newman has claimed in interviews that he regrets writing the song. ‘Mikey’s’ is another amusing portrait of a racist, reactionary douchebag, with our narrator sounding off over a robotic synth-rock backing which seems to be Randy’s pastiche of new-wave rock. I love the way the narrator comments on the music, bellowing: ‘Didn’t used to be all this ugly music playing all time… Where are we, on the moon? Whatever happened to the old songs? Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking “Duke Of Earl“?’!
The hectoring continues on the hilarious ‘My Life Is Good’, a self-mocking vignette which eavesdrops on the life of an arrogant, rich and famous rock star. Springsteen gets a namecheck and Ernie Watts’ booming impersonation of Clarence Clemons is accompanied by Randy screaming, ‘Blow, big man, blow!’ Pretty weird and pretty funny.
Newman then proves that he’s a master of the gear shift with the inclusion of two devastating ballads, ‘Same Girl’ and ‘Real Emotional Girl’. The former, described by its author as a song about ‘two junkies in love’, is a heartbreaking portrait of lost innocence with a sumptuous string arrangement, indelible melody and sometimes dissonant harmonies. He’s just way ahead of his contemporaries here. The latter is an uncharacteristically tender portrait of a sensitive, gentle young woman who can’t help but get her heart broken. The middle eight is just sublime. Linda Ronstadt has performed this song from time to time.
‘Miami’, which kicks off side two, is the most musically expansive track on Trouble, featuring a delicious performance from Randy’s favourite drummer Jeff Porcaro, some intricate stop-start arrangements and eerie mandolins by Dean Parks. The two filler tracks on Trouble, ‘Take Me Back’ and ‘There’s A Party At My House’, are buried in the middle of side two, while ‘I’m Different’ is a self-mocking swinger with some lovely close-harmony backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Ronstadt. The closing ‘Song For The Dead’ is a devastating Vietnam War allegory features a mythological (dead?) colonel who has been left behind to say a prayer for his fallen comrades. The song bravely dares to send up a certain kind of American heroism, but still carries a hefty emotional punch.
Trouble In Paradise was not a commercial success, reaching only number 69 on the US album chart. That is a pretty shocking showing from such a major artist and one of the greatest songwriters. The failure seemed to chasten Newman – he jumped back into the world of movies, scoring 1984’s ‘The Natural’ and co-writing the screenplay for the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase vehicle ‘The Three Amigos’. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Ry Cooder, it seemed that film work was now funding an increasingly unpopular solo career.
Randy returned as a solo artist in 1987 to make Land Of Dreams, perhaps the only album of his that hasn’t dated well (though he told Paul Zollo in the brilliant book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘ that it’s his personal favourite). Then, over a decade later and against all the odds, he released one more near-classic, 1999’s Bad Love, crowning 30 years of songwriting consistency. He once told the writer Jon Ronson, tongue placed firmly in cheek: ‘My career has been a disappointment to me. I always hoped I’d sell millions of records. There are 40,000 people out there who just love me. But they may be surprised to hear I’ve been aiming beyond them.’ We probably shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.