At this point in his career, Randy Newman has reached legendary status within pop culture. With a career as broad to include Toy Story soundtracks and a sarcastic ode to Los Angeles, Newman seems to feel comfortable with about any subject matter. And at age 74, he still knows how to pull a heart string or two, or even probe into the mysteries of the universe with scathing wit. On “Dark Matter,” Newman dives into both for our entertainment.
It’s been nine years since Newman’s last album, 2008’s “Harps and Angels,” a collection of songs that hearkened back to his work from the 70s, relying just as heavily on his misanthropic wit and love of old hollywood scores to challenge and entertain his audience. On that album Newman conducted a great send-off of the Bush administration. With “Dark Matter” he dives into the great irony of our “Make America Great Again” nation, finding different angles and perspectives along the way.
Newman wastes no time on “Dark Matter,” opening up the album with the sweeping “The Great Debate.” In the song Newman shifts between narrators and perspectives, presenting an epic debate between science and religion as the urgent center point to the song. On one side stands sort of scientist you can imagine, and on the other we find the “true believers.” With great bravado Newman opens up the grand event:
“Welcome, welcome, welcome to this great arena! Durham, North Carolina, the heart of the Research Triangle! We’ve come to this particular place tonight, ’cause we gotta look at things from every angle. We need some answers to some complicated questions if we’re going to get it right”
It doesn’t take long for things to get interesting. The two sides debate dark matter and evolution, with Newman giving the “true believers” the last word on every subject. The scientists are cocky and disconnected, while the religious refuse to be thwarted by any scientific “theories.” “You don’t know what it is, you don’t know where it is, and we can’t get any?” the “true believers” say about dark matter before descending into a joyous chorus:
“I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time!
I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time!
Yes I will, yes I will, yes I will, yes I will!
I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time!”
Things begin to get self-referential when one of the “true believers” exposes Newman’s ridicule of them through the song. We suddenly become aware of the ease in which we can dehumanize and demonize through media, turning a person into a “strawman” we can knock down. Although “The Great Debate” grows confusing and muddled by the end, perhaps the point is the inherent chaos that comes with any such argument.
On the rest of “Dark Matter,” Newman pulls us through worlds of style and subject, either lamenting loss in layers of western grandeur in “Lost Without You,” or chronicling the life and times of the eminent Russian leader in “Putin.” At times I feel I’m watching some tongue-in-cheek Hollywood epic, the kind of film that chronicles and critiques society somewhere outside of time and space. At other times I’m attending a dimly lit Broadway sideshow, where each colorful character gets their own swan song with the help of horn sections and Newman’s signature delivery. It would be hard to find a songwriter that can be so comically scathing and heartbreakingly tender on the same album. On “She Chose Me,” Newman seems authentically filled with deep gratitude for the love that has come his way:
“I’m not much to talk to and I know how I look
What I know about life comes out of a book
But of all of the people there are in the world
She chose me”
“Most of my life, been on my own
Whatever I did, I did it alone
And then she came along, now I’m not alone
Since she chose me”
Though “Dark Matter” is fractured and scattered at times, it’s still a resonant album from one of America’s finest songwriters. Always interesting and one step ahead of the rest of us, Newman still has the irritating ability to challenge anyone that would casually listen to a song. Perhaps in 2017 we can really learn to listen.