Release Date: Aug 4, 2017
Record label: Nonesuch
Randy Newman has enjoyed one of the more charmed careers of any composer or pop singer from the 20th Century. It's a rearview full of GRAMMYs, Emmys, Oscars and so much more. Yet it's Newman's drive to out-Newman himself that keeps audiences enraptured. Such is the effect found throughout Dark Matter, the 73-year-old's first record of new material since 2008.
I can think of no songwriter as fruitfully unhappy as Randy Newman. Not angsty--there are angstier--and not depressed in the poetic, European sense, but unhappy: that cow-eyed state in which the good stuff doesn't feel that good and the bad stuff you just learn to laugh at. For 50 years he has delivered us obliquely sentimental, trend-free music about racists, losers, lovelorn deadbeats ("Marie") and children who tell their parents to come visit anytime--but do call first ("So Long Dad").
Early in his career, Randy Newman used to regularly puzzle over his lack of commercial success, seemingly unaware that his trademark combination of New Orleans piano and wildly unreliable narrators was hardly a sure path to the Hit Parade. Decades later, Newman has found a side door to fame and wealth as a composer of film scores and likeable theme tunes for Pixar features. As a consequence, the man who created dark masterpieces like 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys is too busy to make the same sort of albums he released when he was a mere cult figure.
R andy Newman decided to omit the song he wrote about Donald Trump's penis from Dark Matter (drolly explaining "the subject is too sore to get into"), but otherwise the veteran American songwriter-satirist is still putting the boot in where it hurts. Putin ("He can drive his giant tank across a Trans-Siberian plain / He can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain") is drily rendered as Russian orchestral folk. Eight-minute opener The Great Debate comically pits science against gospel-singing creationists and climate change deniers.
While age mellows many, for some it ushers in an era of fearlessness. Unsurprisingly, Randy Newman's firmly of the latter persuasion. As ever, it's tempting to simply list the zingers. Who else has the brass cojones to not only write a song seemingly designed to enrage Putin, "When he takes his shirt off he drives the ladies crazy, when he takes his shirt off, makes me wanna be a lady", but to then put himself in the leader's head, with ever more pointed barbs, "I dragged these peasants kicking and screaming into the 21st century." Not many songwriters create scenes as vividly as Newman and this time around the arrangements give the whole thing a real air of theatricality.
Timing is everything, and Randy Newman's the man to tell you so. It's funny to think that, in the popular imagination of the generation best encapsulated as 'millennials', he's probably best known for his soundtrack work, and especially the first Toy Story; his well-weathered and unmistakable vocals likely conjure up Woody, Buzz and 'You've Got a Friend in Me' for anybody under the age of 30. Now well into his seventies, Newman remains an in-demand movie composer, with Pixar's latest, Cars 3, representing the latest chapter in his creative relationship with the studio.
Randy Newman is so busy as a film composer (most recently with Cars 3) that we get new albums from him only about once a decade. But the guy's got pretty good timing: Just as 2008's excellent Harps and Angels served as a sardonic send-off to the Bush era, Dark Matter greets #MAGA America with his signature brutal comic irony and heartbreaking grandeur. The nine-minute "The Great Debate" is a Broadway-scale throwdown between religion and reason that's so nuanced Newman himself even comes on trial for the hanging offense of elite liberal condescension, and the laugh-out-loud "Putin" celebrates the dictator's sexual powers with mock-heroic orchestration and backing singers that suggest the Andrews Sisters in heat.
R andy Newman's mordant satirical powers seem to have atrophied over the years of scoring cute Pixar soundtracks (Toy Story, Cars, etc). His first album in nine years contains decent orchestral tear-jerkers, such as She Chose Me and On the Beach, a vignette of an ageing surf bum, but its lead items fall flat. Attempting to skewer both sides of the science-religion schism, The Great Debate ends up an incoherent, melody-free sprawl.
We don't talk enough about Randy Newman as a singer and a maker of pop records. Oh, we talk plenty about the 73-year-old Los Angeles native who's won Grammys and Emmys and Oscars and been inducted into all the relevant halls of fame. But these days the focus tends to be on Newman's songwriting and composing -- his groundbreaking use of unreliable narrators, for instance, or the eerie prescience of his song "Louisiana 1927," which he wrote in the mid-1970s about a great flood trying to wash that Southern state away.
In the 1999 song "I'm Dead (But Don't Know It)," Randy Newman personifies a past-his-prime pop star. "I've got nothing left to say, but I'm gonna say it anyway," he sings. It's a fate that befalls most once-noteworthy pop-culture figures. Yet on his 11th studio album, "Dark Matter" (Nonesuch), the 73-year-old songwriter shows no sign of being at a loss for words about the dark comedy known as the human condition.