The Who-It-Is Hook: James Taylor as God in Randy Newman’s Faust (1995)

In movies, you bring in Jack Nicholson or Angelina Jolie and you have a substantial persona in your mix, someone with baggage you can play with.  (Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother—let Beowulf deal with that!)  It’s a star factor.  Sometimes it sticks out all the more with performers in the “guest star” role.

We can’t speak of the cast members of a rock opera as guest stars, exactly, but that’s the effect.  In Randy Newman’s star-studded Faust, James Taylor as God is the casting choice that is, aptly enough, the greatest.  For JT means Goodness, certainly since “You’ve Got A Friend”—yet he’s also presented himself as Mud Slide Slim and is known for his a-boogey-and-a-woogie side (“Me and My Guitar”), his cheerful hucksterism.  We also know from Sweet Baby James that he almost crashed and burned and knows people who really did; he came back from the brink through “Fire And Rain” (if you need to be reminded, one of JT-God’s first lines in Faust tells us we have to go through the “fire and wind and rain” to get on the Glory Train).  And he’s had to come back from the brink a few times since.  So who else could give a better impression of this rugged world’s adorable Creator?

It starts pretty straightforwardly:

“Glory Train”

But by the album’s third track JT-God is teasing us as a more sleazy master of ceremonies:

“How Great Our Lord”

What’s at the bottom of it all?  How much do we like, how much can we trust the JT voice?  Doesn’t he offer the nicest possible life advice (just like in “Secret O’ Life” on JT) in “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”?  Despite Randy Newman-Satan’s interruption to complain about a child killer who goes to Heaven, we end up really believing in the “contrition . . . absolution . . . predestination” reply since JT himself really believes in it.  Sure, it’s a facile verbal solution of the problem of unjust outcomes, but it’s unanswerably majestically gorgeous.

“Relax, Enjoy Yourself” (last segment)

This is the moment when the who-it-is hook is really set:  “My ways are mysterious!”  I’ve taken the plunge; I hear in JT’s singing the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt are wonderful in Faust too, but it’s mainly a guy story—being about the meaning of life, the foundations of the universe, stuff like that.  JT-God jovially sparring with RN-Satan feels so true as the ultimate disclosure . . .  As we are dealing with a Randy Newman work, we must end our commentary on this ironical note.[1]

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[1] Here’s another good one from Simon Frith:  “Sinéad O’Connor, for example, has been used to brilliant effect as a voice querying what’s being said by a rapper, on the one hand (in her song with M. C. Lyte, “I Want (Your Hands On Me)”), and by a country singer, on the other (on Willie Nelson’s version of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”)–and I defy anyone to listen to her first entry on the latter track without a shiver of recognition that this person (with all we know about her) should be telling Willie Nelson (with all we know about him) . . . so surely, so sweetly, to survive”—Performing Rites (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard U., 1996), p. 202.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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2 Responses to The Who-It-Is Hook: James Taylor as God in Randy Newman’s Faust (1995)

  1. Elise Smith says:

    James Taylor’s voice just seems a little too light-weight for me to take him seriously as God, and the angelic choir in “Relax, Enjoy Yourself” just strikes me as goofy. Maybe it’s not enough in the background, so that God’s mysteriousness is made not so mysterious after all since it has to be buoyed up in that way? I think I’d rather have a deep, dark, textured voice for God, which could be male or female.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    In another situation I’d prefer Paul Robeson, probably, but here JT seems just right to me (with a very necessary buoying by the angelic choir) because the whole thing is a goof. I’m carried up to the big mystery on the wings of an amusing conceit–kind of like in those disarmingly anthropocentric images in Genesis of a deity who takes an evening walk in the garden or enjoys pleasant smells from sacrificial fires.

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