Eschewing musical fads for his particular mix of the satirical and the sweet, foot planted firmly on the piano pedal, Randy Newman has been poking at sacred cows and societal conventions since his self-titled debut in 1968. With Dark Matter, his 11th studio album, Newman’s tongue is no less sharp for the almost 40 years spent in the troubadour business.
These days there are many whose knowledge of Newman stems predominately from his soundtrack work with an entire generation connecting his voice to a childhood of watching Toy Story movies. His success in that arena – two Academy Awards and six Grammys just to start with – helps explain the nearly 10 years between this and his last studio album Harps and Angels. It is hard not to surmise his work in film scoring has influenced Dark Matter as he is no longer just a man and a piano but now yields the full-might of an orchestra at his disposal which he uses to great advantage, dipping in and out of genres.
Newman employs these musical styles as narratives tools and this is something he uses to effect in the albums first track The Great Debate. An eight minute musical debate between science and religion, Newman draws from gospel and jazz sounds, in particular using the seductive joy of gospel (and the refrain “I’ll take Jesus every time”), to illustrate the many enticements of religion (and in opposition the at times bloodless nature of science). Political landscapes are used as jumping-off points for songs Brothers, the Bay of Pigs being the narrative backdrop for a conversation in which John Kennedy confesses his love of Celia Cruz to brother Bobby, and Newman’s ode to Russia’s President Putin. His skewering of Putin (“he can power a nuclear reactor with the left-side of his brain”, “when he takes his shirt off it makes me want to be a lady!”) is like something from a modern-day version of the musical The Producers.
Dark Matter doesn’t just focus on the political though, in songs like Sonny Boy (about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson) and Lost Without You wherein a father gathers his children to see their dying mother, Newman looks at smaller personal stories with just as much thoughtfulness. She Chose Me demonstrates that his turns to the sweet sentiment that have seen some of his greatest pop successes, particularly those covered by other artists with less shaggy-dog voices, are still part of his repertoire.
But it is the sly wit of Newman that is needed in 2017, particularly when pointed at such figures as Putin or Trump (Newman’s song regarding regarding the latter was cut from the album but released online). At times when the US feels particularly off the rails I often listen back to Newman’s 1972 track Political Science which satire’s US foreign policy; now whenever I witness the Russian President being particularly toxic I know the refrain in my head will be “Putin if you put it where you put it”, and that is a gift.