's ability to churn out thought-bending songs and character perspectives hasn't waned in the forty-seven years since his debut as a songwriter. Randy Newman is somewhat of an anomaly in that his songs are so well known (and famously misunderstood) that they have been covered time and again by big name artists, yet have almost never sold well themselves. In fact, of all his songs written as a personal release, his biggest hit "Short People" was propelled to the top of the charts specifically because of the backlash from an enormous misunderstanding of it being a satirical quip at baseless prejudice and not actually a reflection of his own beliefs.
Last Friday, Newman released his latest personal album in nine years, after taking time to work on multiple motion picture soundtracks. Dark Matter
touches on all topics, old and new, big and small. He shows that he isn't afraid to throw punches at the heaviest names of our time, while also giving life to oft forgotten stories of the past. But this album has a special kind of sentiment attached to it that we don't always expect from a musical satirist like Randy Newman. Some of the songs on Dark Matter
eschew his humorous bite for more serious tones and tempered reflections.
The album opens strong with "The Great Debate", a theatrical mini-musical that hits on one of the oldest battles in human history: Science vs. Religion. The scene of this song is set in an arena in North Carolina where a panel of scientists and the "true believers" go toe-to-toe in a satirical debate about "getting it right" in regards to which side is true. It's one of Newman's most vivid character dialogues to date, and comes loaded with plenty of genre clashing and a direct confessional stanza about his own style of writing that we've never gotten from his songs before.
Having already opened the political powder keg, Newman doesn't shy away from poking fun at the diplomatic decisions of politicians in "Brothers", in which John and Robert Kennedy converse about the reasons for going forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. It's comically light-hearted in spite of the weight of the decisions that are discussed in the oval-office. One of my favorites off the album is the hyperbolic villain theme for "Putin", a mock tribute where Newman takes on the persona of the Russian President and pokes fun at the absurdity of his character.
But then, "Lost Without You" hits us like a train. Instead of his usual satirical perspective writing, Newman takes on the role of a troubled husband whose wife has just passed away. He recounts fond memories gone by, and the sadness of hearing his own children give up on him in his melancholy state. He plays a character whose flaws come from a place of justified anguish, rather than any sort of upbringing or lack of good conscience. There is so much weight to this song, and it describes something everyone will have to experience at some point in their lives, in their own way. It hits hard.
Not being a malicious man, Newman knows when his listeners need a pick-me-up, so he introduces "Sonny Boy", a song that tells the story of Sonny Boy Williamson I and the man who stole his name, Sonny Boy Williamson II. The narrative, from the perspective of Sonny Boy I in Heaven (so, already biased obviously), gives his perspective in regards to what happened to him and how the man who stole his name went on to fortune and fame following his death. It brings his listeners back into the humorous jaunty world of his staple crafts.
If you ever watched the TV series Monk
, a show about a detective with severe OCD and a long list of phobias, you've probably heard "It's A Jungle Out There", which makes a reprisal in Dark Matter with a rerecorded version. It even adds in new lyrics commenting on the issue of police brutality, which gives the song a very real and justifiable edge to the paranoia of its character perspective.
Originally, Newman had written "She Chose Me" for the doomed police musical drama "Cop Rock". It often gets called a "terrible show with a great song". It was great enough that he actually won an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Music and Lyrics' despite the show being one of the biggest television failures in the 90s. Newman also decided to rerecord this song for Dark Matter
and gave it a proper rework, giving it the chance to really shine as a heart-warming reflection all on its own.
"On The Beach" tells the story of a beach bum named Willie who stays constant despite all the people in the song moving on, and the world changing around him. Newman described the way he would go to the beach every day for three or four years as a kid, but then had the mind to stop as he grew up. In an interview
, he said "But there was a group of people that didn't stop. They made it a way of life. One guy ended up there for good—but it's not a happy thing when you're 50 years old and you don't have a roof."
The album finally ends with "Wandering Boy". Newman said that when he wrote this song "it came hard". It has a supremely personal tone about it that even makes the writer who penned it choke up with emotion at the chorus. "So I tried to imagine what it would be like if one of those homeless guys that I see on the street a little ways away from here were one of my sons. And then I wrote the song. And it came hard. I was choking up when I was writing the thing. I would play it for someone, and I'd get to, 'Where's my wandering boy…'—anything that makes you cry must be something to do with yourself."