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Music

The two songs Bob Dylan said it “doesn’t get any better than”

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Just as a penchant for pink trousers is a prerequisite for the upper classes, you can’t make good music without an inherent love of the artform; like Tom without Jerry, one simply cannot exist without the other. Over the year’s Bob Dylan has celebrated music in a very meta sense. With tracks like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘A Murder Most Foul’, he has crafted some of the most poetic odes to the exultant medicine of music and its essential place in our lives that have ever been written.

Paradoxically, however, he has often been guarded about heaping praise on specific songs and records. The Beatles might have called him an “idol” and a “hero”, but he did not openly return the favour. Instead, he reservedly kept his admiration close to his chest so as not to cause a big love-in and only retrospectively remarked: “I just kept it to myself that I really dug them.”

Fortunately, he has occasionally let his mask of reticence slip and celebrated a song or two in the most perfunctory sense. One of the artists that has received the most love from the star is Randy Newman. In a career that started in earnest in 1968, Newman may have struggled to garner more than a record-buying audience of 200,000 worldwide, but of those 200,000, many will be fellow songwriters in their own right like mega-fan Bob Dylan or the surfeit of neophyte Newman students who crawled out from under his keyboard. 

In fact, Randy Newman is widely accepted among artists to be one of the greatest songwriters ever to try his hand at the craft. However, this sadly hasn’t led to widespread acclaim with the uninitiated masses, many of him simply view him as ‘the Pixar music guy’. Thankfully Dylan was more than happy to shine an illuminating light on his work in an interview with Paul Zollo in 1991.

Dylan declared: “Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than ‘Louisiana’ or [‘Sail Away’]. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like a classically heroic anthem theme. He did it. There’s quite a few people who did it. Not that many people in Randy’s class.”

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Dylan has even pointed out his favourite Newman period in the past, stating: “I like his early songs, ‘Sail Away,’ ‘Burn Down the Cornfield’, ‘Louisiana’, where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.”

Newman and Dylan are unique because their song stories are almost post-modernist. Where Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue might tell a brilliant tale from A to B, Randy Newman’s string of unreliable narrators tell a tale from E to Z via C; he uses juxtapositions of melody and lyrics in the same way that his literary equivalents might mix word choice and situation, and thanks to his family background in orchestral composing, he does it all to such eminently listenable tunes. This old school notion of crafting complete compositions as opposed to throwing poetry over any given pretty melody is something that sets them apart as songsmiths. 

As Paul Simon once opined: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.” The same could be said for Randy ‘The Dean of Satire’ Newman. 

You can check out ‘Louisiana’ and ‘Sail Away’ below.