12 Songs is a brutal listen. It is almost unthinkable that this is the same Randy Newman who would go on to write sweet songs for Pixar. And it’s a difficult album to critique because of both the artist who created it and the pedigree behind it. Robert Christgau famously called 12 Songs “a perfect album,” and Newman is widely regarded as a smart, acerbic songwriter who rarely makes his intentions explicit. That said, in 2016, a song like “Yellow Man” is tough to take.
Now, if you haven’t heard “Yellow Man,” go ahead and click here and give it a listen. On the album, “Yellow Man” follows Newman’s cover of “Underneath the Harlem Moon” and reads, more or less, like a 1970s update of “Harlem Moon”’s downtown racism, just swapping out Harlem for Vietnam. Contemporary critics lauded this choice, crediting Newman with sly swipes at the disgusting side of the American psyche. Yet, by the publication of the original RS 500, when it came time to write about the album, the couplet of songs is ignored entirely.
Look, if you buy what Newman is selling, this is great, deadpan satire. A joke so close to its target, they become the same thing. And the gag is propelled further by a comic who just isn’t interested in signaling to the audience where the punchline is. Newman simply plays his songs and lets the listener parce out intent from the patchwork of images and melodies. The sequencing of the tracks is a clue. As is the placement of “Old Kentucky Home” immediately after “Yellow Man.” Newman gives the listener a huge dose of American racism, both from the North and South, and leaves it at that.
But I just don’t buy it. I don’t think Newman is racist. I just think he misses badly. The fulcrum of the joke that lets “Yellow Man” exist in a way that makes listeners comfortable hinges on listening to “Harlem Moon” and thinking “Wow, that’s horrible what people wrote about African Americans way back when.” Only to have Newman swoop in one track later with an updated version using contemporary racist attitudes towards Vietnam as the fuel. “Boy oh boy, we sure do look foolish,” we’re meant to think. “That witty troubadour Randy Newman sure gave us what for!”
Call me a killjoy but that just isn’t enough. There is truth to it, yes. But I can’t help the feeling that there were far too many people giggling for all the wrong reasons before, during, and after the song’s release. This is all speculation, but I feel a certain sense of “getting away it” layered in some of these 12 Songs. And believe me, Newman knows there are people like me out there who will write reviews like this. Years later, with the release of “Short People” he’d find out what a real miss looks like.
But it isn’t just too-bold swings at stereotypes that make 12 Songs so uncompromising. The song “Suzanne” is, musically, one of my favorites on the record. Lyrically, it tells the first person story of a man who finds a woman’s phone number scrawled on a wall and plans to stalk her down and rape her. In what may be another sly sequencing joke, “Suzanne” follows “Mama Told Me Not to Come” which is one of Newman’s most joyous, paranoid, silly and ultimately great songs.
12 Songs is a nasty record. And it has to be up to each listener to decide if the tricks Newman is pulling are working or if you can see a little too much of the man behind the curtain to believe the illusions. So many critics hail these types of risks as bold or unflinching. But those platitudes really hinge on if you think the risks are working. Personally, they don’t work for me. So it’s difficult to salute the effort.
Newman would go on to release a truly great string of records throughout the 1970s. And to appreciate them it is a good idea to cozy up with the monsters in 12 Songs if only for a few listens. It doesn’t work all the time. And the record is far, far worse for the wear than anything thus far seen on The RS 500, but there is value in making the call yourself. And even within all that nastiness there are still a few genuinely perfect songs. “Mama Told Me Not To Come” is still the best anxiety-ridden nerd anthem anyone would write until the Talking Heads showed up. And “Suzanne” is “Frankie Teardrop” levels of terrifying. Try out 12 Songs. It is ok if you hate it.
—Steven Casimer Kowalski