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Sail Away
Randy Newman

Reprise 2064
Released: June 1972
Chart Peak: #163
Weeks Charted: 18

Randy NewmanFrom as far back as 1966, with "Simon Smith and the Dancing Bear," the most consistently productive creator of very personal, very allusive, and very good songs that seem to become pop hits almost in spite of themselves has been the young American songwriter Randy Newman. It is therefore no suprise -- to me -- to find him, in his newest Reprise album Sail Away, in full command of his remarkable abilities. True, he has always been considered a little too square, a little too middle-class to qualify as a paid-up Now Person for the Cognoscenti of the Trends. After all, arranging for Peggy Lee? And a commercial success?

Luckily for us, Newman doesn't seem to pay any attention to this sort of put-down; he obviously considers himself a professional man in a profession he enjoys and intends to make a success of. But all that is quite beside the artistic point, which is that Newman has achieved that success despite the undeniably quirky eccentricity of much of his work. Take, for instance, the weird lyrical exercise he set for himself in "You Can Leave Your Hat On": a young lady is urged to take off her coat, shoes, and dress, then stand on a chair and shake her arms while Newman chants "They don't know what live is/ they don't know what love is/ I know what love is." I doubt that any talent other than Newman's could make this oddity into the oddly affecting piece it is when he performs it.

Randy Newman - Sail Away
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My favorite in this group, however, is also probably the most forthrightly commercial: "Lonely at the Top" is another pass at a tired -- and usually tiresome -- complaint: the empty meaninglessness of too much money and fame, too many girls. But in Newman's version I detect a slyness in the music, the arrangement, and the performance that suggest to me that the composer may just be putting us on. There is a riddlelike quality to much that Newman does that may be the key to my fascination with him.

"God's Song" is relatively straightforward and, I'm afraid, more than a little slick; "Burn On" is another oddity, mustering up a quite legitimate indignation over the burning of Ohio's Cuyahoga River (the river itself actually caught on fire from industrial pollution, buring down two bridges in the process). But no matter what Newman writes, arranges (this always superbly), or performs, he is always interesting. And that he is somehow able to share his private, highly symbolic world with a mass listening audience makes him unique in the pop-music field.

- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 9/72.

Bonus Reviews!

Randy Newman deals with subjects and values that are all but forgotten in contemporary pop music, reflecting in his ironic, witty songs some profundities which have been sorely neglected. Newman sings about God, Country, Old Age and Love with a vision that no other possesses, because he has a keen sense of history, the value of tradition, and the basic needs of human beings. His concern for the problems of old age are especially poignant in light of modern hedonism and emphasis on youth's supreme worth. "Old Man" is a devastating image of death, which is all the more horrible because there "Won't be no God to comfort you/You taught me not to believe in that lie." Newman can see both sides of religion, and on Sail Away he writes both "He Gives Us All His Love," a simple prayer to God the Father, and "God's Song," a cutting tune which proposes that although God exists, he is at worst malevolent and at best indifferent. After God tells what contempt he holds for mankind, he then says: "I burn down your cities -- how blind you must be/I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we/You all must be crazy to put your faith in me/That's why I love mankind."

The political Newman is an individual who is fed up, ironically, with diplomacy and the necessity to deal with other human beings as equals. He voices American bigotry in "Political Science," which humorously suggests annihilating our ungrateful enemies and turning the entire continent of Australia into "an all American amusement park," and in the title song, which takes the form of a con man's come-on to the Africans he's trying to "recruit" for the slave trade in America.

Interspersed with such bitter, controlled tirades, are lyrically crazy vaudeville numbers like "Lonely At The Top," a song about Newman's nonexistant financial success, and "You Can Leave Your Hat On," which is based on the familiar Woody Allen theory that everyone is a shy little person when it comes to sex, and that yields some strange relationships.

The arrangements throughout are well suited to individual tracks, with the slower, sad tunes receiving either stark piano/voice treatment or piano/plaintive, airy strings/voice workings, and the up-tempo things utilizing a small four or five piece band for some extra bounce. Randy's moaning voice is once again the perfect blend of pleading docility and off-the-cuff insanity. "These are art songs -- don't you read the papers?" is something Newman is in the habit of telling audiences nowadays, and as long as one keeps his mind firmly on the humor and wit inherent in the songs, the label is not at all pretentious. The Ace of Acuity strikes again!

- Mark Leviton, Words & Music, 9/72.

Newman's latest collection of songs includes a variety of incisive, pithy, satiric, nostalgic material and he remains one of the best interpreters of his own material. "Political Science," "Dayton, Ohio-1903," "God's Song," "Lonely at the Top," and the title song are among the best cuts.

- Billboard, 1972.

God, Randy Newman can write a song. He has cut through all the crap, the showbiz cutesy-pie shticks, the "Man, this is really heavy" rock absurdities and given us the world; music so absolutely true, you are almost certain you've heard it before, but you haven't -- not in this lifetime, at least. The only trouble with Sail Away is that Newman's the one performing Newman. You somehow long for Nilsson to show him how a Newman song should be sung. But no matter; if Randy adds nothing to his own material, he doesn't take anything away. There are the beautifully bitter title song, "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear," the blackly humorous "Political Science," the lovely Gospel air "He Gives Us All His Love" and eight other Newman nifties. Tune in, please.

- Playboy, 9/72.

Like most aesthetes, Newman is an ironist. This is fine when he's singing about human relationships, which tend to be problematic, but it's rarely sufficient morally to the big political and religious themes he favors these days. If 12 Songs was Winesburg, Ohio (or even Dubliners) transported to 1970 Los Angeles, Sail Away sometimes has the tone of Tom Lehrer transported to 1972 Haiphong, where he has no more business than Bob Hope. But never before has Newman managed to yoke his orchestral command to his piano, and I hope the leap in listenability will attract some new admirers. Also, the cosmic ironies do fit the title song, in which a slave trader becomes the first advertising man, or perhaps -- this is not Tom Lehrer stuff -- Melville's confidence-man, for a masterpiece even stranger and more masterful than Newman's other masterpieces. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Generally thought to be Newman's best recording, Sail Away offers fascinating textures and some of Newman's most effective songwriting, notably the title track, "Lonely at the Top," and the wickedly weird "You Can Leave Your Hat On." It doesn't all succeed, but then he grapples with some basic concepts -- "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," and some cheap-shot humor, "Political Science" -- all in the name of irony, of course. One of the more encouraging things about the world of commercial pop music is that whenever the reticent Newman garners enough inspration to fashion an album, not only does it get released, but enough people buy it to repeat the cycle -- it's enough to make you wonder (I'm sure Newman does). But releases like Sail Away give validity to the pop song as a vehicle for meaningful expression. The CD's sound is a shade compressed, but still strong. A

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Sail Away was Newman's first synthesis of his satirical writing and his impressive orchestral arrangement skills. The result was one of his very best albums. The title cut was a brilliantly twisted take on slaves coming on a ship from Africa, set to a score that owed much to Stephen Foster. "Burn On," Newman's sentimental-sounding ode to the polluted Cuyahoga River (in Cleveland, OH), and his perverse "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (later popularized by Joe Cocker in the movie 9 1/2 Weeks) are among the many great songs to be found on Sail Away. * * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Randy Newman wedges his tongue into his cheek on the gloriously sardonic Sail Away as he entices slaves to America like a sideshow huckster ("Sail Away"), celebrates the polluted Cuyahoga River like it was Walden Pond ("Burn On") and advocates dropping the Big One ("Political Science"). * * * * 1/2

- David Okamoto, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Newman's producer, Lenny Waronker, called him the King of the Suburban Blues Singers. This is his quiet masterpiece, not so much rock as a fuck-you cabaret. Even now, "Political Science" ("Let's drop the big one/And see what happens") is relevant; either Newman is brilliant or we haven't come a long way, baby.

Sail Away was chosen as the 321st greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Randy Newman was, and still is, seen as a songwriter first and a performer second. Back in 1972, the 28-year-old's musically old-fashioned but lyrically sharp little Tin Pan Alley-style pieces had been hits for many acts (most famously Three Dog Night's cover of "Mama Told Me Not To Come"), but Newman's own albums had sunk like lead. It was with this immaculate song-cycle that people began to pay attention.

"Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear" was a jaunty hit in 1967 for Alan Price, but here, with Newman's inimitable wreck of a voice backed only by his precise piano, it's swamped in pathos, the narrator not a winking entertainer but a pitiable fantasist. (For the record, Newman writes the majority of his songs in character.) Several singers have, chillingly, turned the orchestral slave-trader pitch-piece "Sail Away" into an anthem extolling America as the land of the free. Most famously, the pathetic, almost sinister "You Can Leave Your Hat On" was morphed by Joe Cocker and, later, Tom Jones, into a tumescent come-on. No one misinterpreted "Politcal Science," a richly sarcastic dig at American foreign policy ("They all hate us anyhow/So let's drop the big one now"), which might be why no one has ever covered it.

Newman had his hit in 1977 with the acerbic satire of "Short People," since when he has spent much of his time in the family business. Alfred Newman, his uncle, was the head of music at 20th Century Fox; Newman has received a tidy wage -- and 16 Oscar nominations -- writing scores for movies both memorable (Toy Story) and abysmal (Three Amigos).

- Will Fulford-Jones, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

In the early 1970s, Randy Newman was L.A.'s weirdest singer-songwriter genius. And Sail Away is his meanest and funniest portrait, with the coldblooded "Political Science," the blasphemous "God's Song," and the romantic "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

Sail Away was chosen as the 268th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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