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.
Newman’s catalog is bursting with jaunty, and imagined, historical recounts. Whether lamenting the pomposity of colonialism (“The Great Nations of Europe”), the impending apocalypse of imperialism (“Political Science”) or the failings of Marxist socialism (“The World Isn’t Fair”), his songs often have a bit of regurgitative quality. It’s as if he had been studying the facts of some yesteryear socio-political playbook, then plotting the major points to the minor scales of his twinkling piano-penned ballads. Some moments of Dark Matter rely on those well-worn tricks, but the songs where Newman is making very obvious strides away from that jump out as some of the most fun and intoxicating material of his career.
The theatrical arc of the long-winded concept piece “The Great Debate” opens the album. The song takes on the form of a global conference covering religion, evolution, climate change and astrophysics, with representatives from each area of study regaling an audience in a grand arena, while Newman’s narrator juggles the arguments. “We gotta look at things from every angle/We need some answers to some complicated questions if we’re going to get it right,” he sings.
It’s a hyper-meta prism, where Newman even attacks himself as the author of the tune, through which a meandering, mood-shifting composition pitches and yaws like a Willy Wonka tunnel-boat ride. Its central thesis seems to rely on the resiliency of the Christian right as an impenetrable barrier to greater existential research. It’s a proto-Newman instaclassic, and, at over eight minutes’ strong, a daring way to begin a new record.
Newman puts ample faith in his listeners to be able to distinguish the various forms of pathos his characters suffer from, and that arm’s-length approach is stretched in dazzling ways throughout. It’s been a method ripe for parody at times—the spectacle of the uber-observer parroting what he’s seeing right in front of him to music. But Newman’s vision goes beyond that of the predictable composer on songs as ingenious as “Brothers,” which explores an imagined conversation between JFK and Bobby Kennedy, wherein the former laments the potential safety threat upon Cuban singer Celia Cruz prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Newman’s cinematic arrangements invite a Cuban salsa when Cruz’s name is introduced, shifting from the song’s previously demure string-lead ballad.
Newman retains the not-so-subtle barbs of his earlier material, enshrined as they are within resilient, expansive, piano-drenched vignettes of observational satire. The Broadway-ready ode to Russian leader Vladimir Putin (“Putin”) zeroes in on the leader’s omnipresence, as well as his penchant for shirtlessness. A suitable companion piece to this track would have been the song Newman reportedly wrote (but has not released) featuring President Trump talking up the size of his genitals.
If anyone were going to have the balls to try something like that, it’s Newman. Unafraid of taboo vernacular in his lyrics—often misunderstood on older songs like “Yellow Man” and “Rednecks”—he has always attempted to bridge cultural divides by dropping into the everyman verbiage of his characters. It’s a tricky proposition, but one that Newman gets away with through the honesty of his delivery and the strength of his reputation.
It’s a long way from his turns as go-to Disney film composer, but on Dark Matter, Newman’s versatility, as ever, transcends pigeonholing and illuminates the smart aleck-y nature (with the emphasis on smart) of one of the world’s great songwriters once again.