Review

Pure Imagination, Anthony Newley's first album for MGM Records, released in 1971, was something of an addendum to his and songwriting partner Leslie Bricusse's score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, presenting Newley's versions of some of the songs from the film, as well as re-recordings of some of his old hits from the '60s. Ain't It Funny, issued a year later on MGM subsidiary Verve Records, was something else again. Newley and Bricusse were in the midst of preparing a new stage vehicle for Newley, The Good Old Bad Old Days, and five songs intended for the show, which eventually opened in London that December, were premiered on the LP. The other five were sole Newley compositions. Taken together, the collection was an ambitious, introspective album that actually constituted Newley's response to the confessional singer/songwriter style then popular in the work of people like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Newley, of course, was much older than such performers, turning 41 years old in 1972. And his background was strictly show business, dating back to his childhood. But the songs he had written for his shows Stop the World! -- I Want to Get Off and Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd, despite their pop appeal, shared much of the self-consciousness of the '70s singer/songwriters, who were, in so many words, often asking questions much like those posed in Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)." Now, he brought up the issue of his place in the world and the state of the music scene at the outset in the pun-titled "Overchewer," in which he described himself as "a middle-aged, silent majority, Geritol rock 'n' roll star" and asked, "When did someone born to croon in June get heavy?" He didn't have any immediate answer to that question, and he made it clear that he wasn't ready to "listen to Ravi Shankar in the nude," but he acknowledged that he felt a need to connect with young listeners like those who had listened to him a decade earlier. As the album went on, he veered from up-tempo and upbeat songs about music and world harmony taken from the upcoming show ("The People Tree," "It's a Musical World") and songs of romantic discontent, another favorite subject of the singer/songwriters. Using such arrangers as Peter Matz and Ian Freebairn-Smith, he set those sentiments to musical styles that ranged from country ("Ain't It Funny") to Burt Bacharach-like pop ("Me Without You"). The album reached its peak with the penultimate song, the dramatic ballad "I Do Not Love You," which, of course, convinced the listener of exactly the opposite, and the closing track, "What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy?," a bedtime dialogue between a father and child in which the child wants the question of the title answered and the father wants to rail about the war between the sexes. Ain't It Funny was an album that showed Anthony Newley going off in several different directions at once as he re-examined his life and career, which made it both touching and troubling. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi

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