We didn’t always have a friend in Randy Newman … or, if we did, we knew better than to get too pally with any of his unreliable narrators. Those miscreants have been MIA, with film scoring having long since subsumed his day-job status; Newman’s routine of late has been to release a new album every nine years, whether we need one or not. (We do.) That pre-Pixar Newman returns with a comfortingly uncuddly vengeance in “Dark Matter,” his first collection of fresh songs since 2008. It’s a beautiful reminder of what that New-Orleans-by-way-of-Century-City drawl is for, and it’s not babysitting.
As is typical with most of Newman’s albums, “Dark Matter” breaks down to about two-thirds comedy and one-third tragedy, though the lines are not always distinct. He’s grown even defter over the years at not letting his targets come too sharply into focus, like a lesser satirical mind might. “Putin,” designed as a sort of call-and-response with a chorus of Russkie groupies, rouses some ersatz sympathy for the strongman by giving us complaints about the rubes he rules and even how exactly WWII turned out. “Brothers,” a conversation between Jack and Bobby Kennedy in the Oval Office, detours into a discussion of the racist history of the Washington Redskins’ owner before landing on JFK’s desire to use the Bay of Pigs to rescue Celia Cruz, whom he mistakenly believes is being held by Castro. For Newman, naturally, world leaders past and present are the most unreliable narrators of all. The one you can trust most is bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, who sings a lament from the grave about how another guy stole his name and career; it’s the most outlandish-sounding story on the album, except it’s essentially true.
There’s a randomness to the lyrical details in most of Newman’s comic songs that makes them even funnier. But when he wants to break your heart, he suddenly cuts away all the conversional detritus. “Lost Without You,” a tale recounted by a widower of his children’s final encounter with his wife, may be the most touching song he’s ever recorded — yes, even more than “When She Loved Me” in “Toy Story 2.” “Wandering Boy,” about a father whose adult son has disappeared into homelessness, follows in the long tradition of album-closers that leave a lump in the throat where the guffaw had been.
For novelty’s sake, Newman throws in a sincere romantic ballad. Any such outliers usually end up being something he wrote for an earnest character in a bygone musical, like “Feels Like Home,” which was written for “Faust” before it somehow ended up becoming Randy Newman’s only wedding song. Here, it’s hard to believe that he’d ever write anything as tender and unbarbed as “She Chose Me” unbidden, so it makes sense when you remember or realize that the tune has been resurrected from the scrap heap of the 1990 “Cop Rock” pilot. (True love waits, indeed.) Its sweetness doesn’t spoil the fun.
Speaking of musicals, Newman manages to give us practically an entire one in the opening “The Great Debate,” which has him embodying an entire cast of characters in an eight-minute comedic meditation on faith and reason. It’s Newman’s version of a musical-comedy update on “Inherit the Wind,” with gospel-singing “true believers” debating evolution with flummoxed scientists speaking over spooky space music. Right around the time you’re thinking that self-branded atheist Newman is setting up the religious folks as straw men, he introduces a verse in which a more theologically progressive believer accuses him of doing just that — and then they both take a pounding from the fundies anyway. “Great Debate” a sprawling, borderline-brilliant mess of musical theater in miniature, and, for those eight precious minutes, it feels like Newman’s given us the long-awaited sequel to his off-Broadway show, “Faust,” that all of us (okay, a dozen of us) have been waiting for.
If you want any rock ’n’ roll out of Newman, you’ll have to go to Dodger Stadium and wait to hear “I Love L.A.” Except for a solo piano capper, everything on “Dark Matter” is orchestrated, in the style of his early ’70s albums — albeit with more jazzy swing than he summoned back then. Even when he’s coming up with precise arrangements for dozens of string players, as a singer and lyricist, Newman still manages to sound like he’s freestyling every stray thought — a brilliant combination of mass-scale musicianship and small-scale idiosyncrasy that few other singer-songwriters could pull off, if any. Has American music ever had a better friend?
Producers: Mitchell Froom, Lenny Waronker, David Boucher