×

Album Review: Randy Newman’s ‘Dark Matter’

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?

“Dark Matter”
Randy Newman
Nonesuch Records
Producers: Mitchell Froom, Lenny Waronker, David Boucher

Popular on Variety

Album Review: Randy Newman's 'Dark Matter'

More Music

  • Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music

    As Woodstock Turns 50, the Fest's 10 Most Sacred Music Moments (Watch)

    Cars were left abandoned along the New York Interstate. Electrical and speaker systems fuzzed and popped. Amps blew then went silent. The rain was endless as the mud sank deep and rank. Young children ran naked and dazed through crowds of strangers. Food was scarce. Water, unclean. Looking back, Woodstock seems a more apocalyptic, than [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST

    Jay-Z to Acquire Ownership Stake in NFL Team (Report)

    Jay-Z will soon acquire a “significant ownership interest” in an NFL team, TMZ reported on Friday. The team was not disclosed, but a source told the site the deal will happen in the “near future,” adding that the billionaire rapper “wants to continue to be a change agent for the NFL.” Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, [...]

  • Blake Shelton, Trace AdkinsCMA Music Festival

    Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at 'Old Town Road' in New Single

    Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout [...]

  • Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

    Department of Justice Backs Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

    The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the next big music copyright case on the horizon following the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” decision, and taken Led Zeppelin’s side in the long-running copyright dispute that pits the writers of the group’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” against the publishers of the earlier song “Taurus” by [...]

  • Teddy Riley Walk of Fame

    From Blackstreet to Hollywood Blvd. as Teddy Riley Receives a Star on the Walk of Fame

    Many musical artists are responsible for hits, whether recording and writing for themselves or producing smashes for others. Teddy Riley’s got the success, having fashioned platinum-plated R&B works for, and with, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, Doug E. Fresh and more since the mid-’80s, not to mention the music of his own slick soul [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content