On the most autobiographical album of his career, Randy Newman gets personal
Land of Dreams, released in September 1988, was an unusual turn for Randy Newman, one that eschewed his usual humor and sarcasm, and focused instead on an autobiographical retelling of his childhood growing up in New Orleans. Newman used those environs as his muse before; 1974‘s Good Old Boys was a historical retelling of the sordid days of Southern racism, and at least two of its tracks retold the tale of Louisiana’s controversial governor Huey Long. However, Newman’s biting tone was largely absent from Land of Dreams, suggesting that he was largely taking time to regroup. Indeed, it had been five years since his previous effort Trouble in Paradise and it would be another seven before the release of Randy Newman’s Faust, a decided change in his musical MO and the beginning of a commercial decline.
Indeed, while Land of Dreams didn’t score the rousing kudos and mainstream success that had accompanied his earlier efforts — nothing kitschy and catching in the realm of “Short People” was found here — it wasn’t wholly devoid of notice. The single “It’s Money That Matters” showed evidence of Newman’s sardonic wit, which undoubtedly helped propel it to the top of the rock charts. (It only made it to number 60 on the Hot 100), while three of its songs found their way into popular movie scores. “Something Special” was tapped as the closing theme for the Kurt Russell-Goldie Hawn film score Overboard and was also featured in the trailer for the film Awakenings. (Newman would pen the entire score as well.) “Falling In Love” was played under the credits to the Tom Selleck flick Her Alibi, while “Dixie Flyer” found its way into the filler breaks for the popular radio show “Car Talk.”
Nevertheless, there’s a decidedly maudlin tone to the album overall, a fact hinted at in the titles of the some of the songs — “Bad News from Home,” “Roll with the Punches” and “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” It suggests a sense of self-pity, hardly surprising when one is lamenting a sad childhood. “I found a way to write about myself that I don’t object to,”Newman told People Magazine at the time. “I lied.”
Even so, Newman’s struggles with self doubt — first manifested at an early age — are clearly evident, especially on such offerings as “Four Eyes” ( a song that alludes to his perpetual vision problems and the fact he needed several operations to correct them), “Dixie Flyer,” and “New Orleans Wins the War.”
“School was painful,” Newman went on to admit in the interview. “It was not the best time of my life, like they said it was going to be. Life got harder later, but it got more interesting too.”
At the time of recording, Newman wasn’t in the best of spirits — his mother had recently died and his 18-year marriage had begun to crumble. He wasn’t faring any better health-wise either, having contracted Epstein-Barr disease, a malady that can leave its victims feeling exhausted and depressed.
Nevertheless, it is an opus of sorts, especially if one considers the – list musicians that provide instrumental support — Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Mark Knopfler, Steve Lukather, Buzz Feiten, Dean Parks, David Paich, Leland Sklar and Lenny Castro among them. Likewise, the melodies are some of the resonant of his career. “Dixie Flyer” rings with hope and promise, as does the buoyant “Falling in Love,” the billowy “Something Special,” and one of Newman’s most beautiful ballads, “Follow the Flag.”
On the album’s standout song, Newman famously and facetiously touted the fact that it’s money that matters. However here again, it’s the music that matters as well.