Embarrassment is a tricky emotion to convey in a song. And when it is used (I think Madness once had a song called ‘Embarrassment’), it tends to swamp everything else. It becomes shame.
In Randy Newman’s ‘I Miss You’, from his 1999 CD Bad Love, embarrassment is there, but so is regret, love, humour, guilt and much else. It is a musical picture taken from the complex palate of married life.
Newman is an extraordinary genius. His songs are not musically various – he uses chords and melodies that are immediately recognisable – but the tunes he writes are often as heart-meltingly beautiful as his lyrics are complex, clear-eyed and funny. As songwriter, he seems to be able to do anything.
He can inhabit the life and voice of a bigot, creating a character that’s both appalling and sympathetic (‘Rednecks’, ‘My Life Is Good’ and countless others), or attach a sweet, catchy melody to a savage lyric (‘Political Science’, ‘I Want You To Hurt Like I Do’).
The effect is powerful and often discomfiting – a fact which might explain why, in spite of his award-winning film scores, he is not in the popular mainstream in terms of sales (something he moans about at every possible opportunity). The CD Bad Love was said to have sold around 70,000 copies when it was first released..
He once told an interviewer that he didn’t understand why a songwriter shouldn’t have the same latitude as a short story writer. That, down the years, is what he has done – create characters and stories in musical form. He can take the sing the song of some confused, screwed-up loser, and conjure up the whole sorry, touching mess of being human in these mad times.
Randy Newman’s songs tend to be both personal and oblique: feeling is conveyed through a filter of fiction, irony and jokes.
That makes ‘I Miss You’ unusual. Addressed to his ex-wife Roswitha miles away (‘You must be laughing yourself sick/Up there in Idaho’) and twenty years after they separated , its lyrics are as direct as any song can be.
It is awash with guilt – not just husband guilt (nothing unusual there), but creative guilt. In a Guardian interview, Randy Newman once said,
‘I sometimes wonder whether that is a pose – “The ruthless writer, he really doesn’t care” – but I really do feel that way. If I can get a song out of it, I don’t much care about myself or anyone else.‘
That feeling of remorse, which writers as different as Hilary Mantel, Jane Smiley and William Trevor have worried over, is at the heart of the song:
‘It’s a little bit late
Twenty years or so
And it’s a little bit cold
For all those concerned
But I’d sell my soul and your souls for a song
So I’ll pour my heart out…
Then it’s into the heart-breaking chorus, the words ‘I miss you’ sung to a downward musical sequence that has been used in a million songs.
But never quite like this.