Texas-based songwriter Lucas Jack has made no bones about his desire to bring back the glory days of the piano-pop songwriter, whether that singer be Billy Joel or Elton John. But his attempt to reinvent that tradition, while maintaining the familiar beats listeners will have come to expect, does a surprisingly solid job expanding it as well.
Sun City, a concept album which follows a couple through their journey toward the American Dream, though the detours are numerous and their success rarely assured. These songs are often Joel’s Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” as they travel through the darker edges of modern suburban life. Midway through the album, “Hope” takes on a darker view of Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman,” in particular:
There’s a distance in her eyes
Every time she starts to lie
And she’s far away tonight
And she always offers hope
That she wraps around your throat
Like a hangman selling rope
The war is only words you never say
The score you keep just counting down the days
Keep singing with the chorus in the bar
To blacken out the dark
And keep on coming back just as you are
But it’s not just an exercise in cheap misogyny like Joel’s hit, taking cheap shots. The song illustrates the buying of time which takes place in a marriage collapsing despite everything both spouses try to do. Both sides want to keep things together, so she lies and he accepts the hope she provides, even as he lies by saying the marriage still has a chance and that he’s not strangling against the metaphorical noose. The song’s haunting tone echoes the futility both must feel in the situation, with little they can do but keep living lie after bitter lie.
We witness the same couple earlier in the album on “Paralyzed,” as the husband debates just walking away from everything, even though he knows he never will. Lyrically this is where Lucas Jack shines, laying everything on the line in brutally cutting prose as his piano echoes the hopeful tone which will obviously keep this man in the marriage past its breaking point.
Once a month with our t-shirts on
That’s how far our love has gone
Our friends all tell us we should both move on
But we’re tangled up too tight
We’re paralyzed in our separate ways
We’ve both got kids of our own these days
And they’re making it harder to walk away
But we’re both long gone inside
How’d we get so old at 35?
I don’t want to give you the perspective that this album is nothing but bitter pills to swallow, backed by sunny piano pop which belies the devastation within. Lucas Jack is a talented songwriter who echoes Billy Joel in his delivery as often as he does solo-era Ben Folds and (on “Don’t Get Carried Away” in particular) even a touch of contemporary Randy Newman. These are songs crafted from the ground up to focus on all angles of the song, and it makes for an album full of vignettes which each deserve to be single candidates.
“You Belong To The City Now” stands tall as the album’s best individual track, and it’s rightly been named as the album’s lead single. It opens with piano, bass and guitar as Jack’s vocals sing of “living it up until it’s way too late to live it down,” his characters’ first glimpse of the city life which, while it eventually will consume them, still holds an alluring aura. I was reminded immediately of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the Tom Hanks character who thinks he’s the master of the universe, making loads of money so he can live what he thinks is the perfect life, but we know he’s just a few steps away from being destroyed by that lifestyle. On the fourteen songs which follow this introduction, these two characters will take a serious beating — by the end, will they still believe in that dream? Does that upward mobility to the middle class mean anything, or are we all struggling to get past the moments which in the end would really matter the most?
In the end, Sun City is a remarkably astute debut from a songwriter who has crafted a song suite which plays well from the first hit, building in intensity as we listen more and more, sifting through all the lyrical details. It’s like watching a film where we’ve known these characters in varied forms all our lives, so we’re invested in seeing that they come out in the end with at least a semblance of dignity. This is modern American life, and like the troubadours he so admires, Lucas Jack has potential here to have produced a contemporary pop classic. For fans of the genre, missing this album would be a misstep you don’t want to make.
If you’re among those who only know Randy Newman for his work on Pixar’s soundtracks, you might be excused for writing him off as a one-note hack long past his prime. The rest of us, however, know he’s hands down the most brilliant songwriter and satirist of the last century, well deserving of his chance to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the 2013 class.
I hadn’t heard much of his music prior to taking Andy Hollinden’s Rock and Roll History course at Indiana University back in 2002, but hearing the brilliance of “Sail Away” led directly to my infatuation with that entire album, and then its successor Good Old Boys, which did more to explain the whole “duality of the Southern thing” than anything Drive-By Truckers ever concocted. From his deft dissection of the mock American dream spread through the slave trade on “Sail Away” to the stark honesty of “God’s Song,” distilling the plight of Job through a modern examination of why believers still follow such a vengeful God, nothing tops the audacity and wit of a Randy Newman original.
A few of his greatest songs, described in his own words, below.
It was fast. I think I got into a character, this sort of jingoistic type of fellow. You know, it isn’t the type of song I wanted to write much of. Not that I didn’t love Tom Lehrer, but I don’t want to be, like Don Henley says, “What’s this, another novelty song” (laughs). And I do write a lot of those, songs that are meant to be funny in a form that listeners take the people in it more seriously than literature. (1)
That was actually one of the rare events where I actually saw the character. I saw Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett show. They sat him next to Jim Brown, the audience hooted at him, and he didn’t say a word. Maddox didn’t get a chance to be bad on that show. And I thought, “Now, I hate everything that he stands for, but they didn’t give him a chance to be an idiot.” And here he is, governor of a state—these people elected him in Georgia, however many million people voted for him—and I thought that if I were a Georgian, I would be angry. I would be angry anyway, even if I were a nice, liberal, editor of the journal in Atlanta. And so I wrote that. And there are some mistakes in it, like, that guy wouldn’t know the names of all those ghettos, but, so what. (1)
I think if I had more success it might have pressured me out of writing just whatever I wanted to write– I don’t have that strong a character. But when I did Born Again, that was after I did “Short People”, which was a hit but a novelty hit. And Born Again, just looking at the cover, seems like a reaction to that, presuming that people would know I’m not just some asshole with makeup on. They’ll know who I am. Which was a mistake– they don’t know who I am. That’s the weirdest album I ever made. But “Short People” was the worst kind of hit to have. If you can have a bad hit, that would be one of them. (2)
I’m Dreaming of a White President
I have some concern that kids will hear this and think, “What is he talking about?” If you have a kid and you try irony out on them, they don’t get it at 7, 8 years old. “What do you mean, you’re dreaming of a white president?” It’s a problem. You can’t really hide the Internet from kids. It worries me some particularly because I’ve done Disney and Pixar stuff. In Toy Story, there’s my voice saying, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” And then here’s my voice singing that I want “A real live white man / Who knows the score.” I’d like it to be clearer which side I’m on. Of course, it comes a little late. (3)
I Miss You
I think as an exercise I’m going to write just some straight love songs to see if I can do it. I know I can, actually. So I will. But “Marie” has an idea. With “Marie” a guy’s drunk and he’s able to tell her these things, and he recognizes that. It’s a simple, kind of humble thing but, you know, honest. Things he’d never say. “Losing You” has an idea that at a certain age you reach a point where you don’t get over stuff that happens. You don’t live long enough to do it. And “Miss You” is about giving up on a first wife, and it’s about writing. It’s about saying, ‘I know all the harm this is doing, but I’d sell my soul, your soul and my soul, for a song.’ And I would. Almost. That’s kind of writerly bravura. You know, I’d dig up my mother for a song. I believe that it’s true of me, that it’s important enough to me that I would sacrifice quite a bit for it. (4)
1. Hutchison, Lydia. “Randy Newman: A Character Study” Performing Songwriter — http://performingsongwriter.com/randy-newman-songs/
2. Klein, Joshua. “Interviews; Randy Newman” Pitchfork — http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/7535-randy-newman/
3. Yagoda, Ben. “‘I’m Dreaming of a White President’: Randy Newman on His New Song” Slate — http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/09/18/_i_m_dreaming_of_a_white_president_randy_newman_talks_about_his_new_song_.html
4. Trucks, Rob. “Interview: Randy Newman on ‘Harps and Angels” and Hurricane Katrina” Village Voice – http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2008/09/randy_newman.php?page=2