Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Final Songs: God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)

Album: Sail Away by Randy Newman
Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel suppose to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord and the Lord said
"Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest yucca tree
He chases round this desert 'cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind"
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in Heaven, prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind
The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said "Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said
"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, you really need me
That's why I love mankind"

There's a certain thread in Jewish literature of doubt, of guardedness in the face of the Divine, often expressed in sarcasm. Some would trace this all the way back to the Book of Job. Certainly Stanley Elkin's novel The Living End with its coddled prima donna God, is a more recent example. In these works, the Man Upstairs can appear kind of a dick.

So it is with Randy Newman's "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)". His people cry out at the murder of Abel and His response is, essentially, LOL. In the second half of the song - the line between verse and chorus is blurred here - He indicates that his love for us is tied to the amount of abuse we foolishly take.

But there's a little more nuance to it than that. "God's Song" is a companion piece to "He Gives Us All His Love", also on Sail Away. That song is a more amiable view of a creator we can talk to and lean on, one who looks down benevolently on "babies crying" and "old folks dying." But of course this doesn't mean that babies aren't going to die, or that oldsters won't die. It just gives us some company. Both "He Gives Us All His Love" and "God's Song" are intimate numbers, a man at his piano. Newman sings them both with a collapsed soulfulness, sounding too tired to grieve so determined to find some humor in the situation.

So is God kindly? Sadistic? A little of both? Or maybe just more worn down than he lets on. In his final statement on the album Newman lets you know that the joke is on all of us, not just you. There is some comfort in that.


susan said...

Ah, Sail Away. Randy Newman is a master of dark irony as all the songs on that album prove. I remember someone once said a politician will eventually make the mistake of using the title song as their official campaign song. One of those 'might have beens' to make one smile at the idea of anybody being so ignorant. If only..

You're right that 'God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)' is the perfect natural ending to the album. It's one of the most devastating songs ever written, a bleakly insightful take on religion and a dark meditation on man's relationship to God - at least, the old testament version seemingly followed by even more now than in 1972.

You might enjoy reading the original review of the album that was in Rolling Stone. It's nice that they kept so much of their archived stuff, don't you think?

My favorite from the album is still 'Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear'.

Ben said...

The idea of someone using "Sail Away" as a campaign song is at this point credible enough to be frightening, if also hilarious.

Randy Newman was the perfect songwriter and musician to do "God's Song". He sounds timeless, which is another way of saying that his music sounds old, but not in a way you can trace back to a specific time, which I think was true when he released Sail Away as well.

That is a very good review from Rolling Stone. A couple of years ago it seemed like a lot of their old stuff had been lost, at least online. I guess they just moved it from place to place.

I do love "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear." Newman's voice is just right on it. I remember being surprised that Scooter wasn't the original singer.