The album is an example of Newman's musical satire. The title track takes the form of a pitch from a slave trader in Africa. "Political Science" foresees America making the world a better place through the nuclear annihilation of almost everyone else. "He Gives Us All His Love" is a bittersweet and sparsely arranged hymn about religious faith previously heard (in two different versions) in the 1971 comedy satire film Cold Turkey, for which Newman wrote the score. The version included on this album is a new recording made specifically for Sail Away.
As with all of Newman's early albums, several of its songs had been previously recorded by other artists. In this case, "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" had been a UK hit for Alan Price in 1967, and "Dayton, Ohio - 1903" had been recorded by Harry Nilsson on his 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman and also by Billy J Kramer. Newman himself had also previously recorded "Last Night I Had A Dream" as a single, issued in September, 1968. The version heard on Sail Away is a re-recording with a notably different arrangement.
The song "Lonely at the Top" was written specifically with Frank Sinatra in mind, although he never recorded it.
Brian Wilson has said that this album profoundly affected him at the time of its release, briefly keeping him from sliding further into depression and mental illness. "Burn On," is heard over the opening credits of the 1989 movie Major League.