soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

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