Timely return from hiatus for America’s great absurdist songwriter. By John Harris.
ON THE face of it, the summer of 2017 is the ideal time for America’s most eloquently absurdist songwriter to release his first album of new material in nine years. With the supposed First World in a state of chaos and a President beyond even Newman’s imagination in the White House, he certainly has no end of source material. Put another way, the idea of Newman sending up Donald Trump is so glorious as to almost seem like a matter of duty. This 73-year-old is, of course, a bit too clever for that, and besides, there is plenty of stuff in his back catalogue – from 1974’s Kingfish, to 2008’s A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country – that perfectly suits the current American moment. It’s also worth considering that whatever Randy Newman sings, it channels all the sadness, hubris and madness that courses around America irrespective of who’s presently in charge. Dark Matter, which brims with piano, strings, and Newman’s admirably lived-in vocals, is a collection of self-contained compositions that pinball wildly across themes, and historical periods. It’s a little fragmented, maybe two or three songs too short, but still brimming with his sweet-sour magic. It addresses 2017 pretty directly in its title track: an eight-minute minidrama in which a collection of true believers (including “the Shakers, the Quakers [and] the anti-inoculators”) take on a bunch of scientists over such trifles as climate change and evolution, and pronounce themselves the winners, simply because “I’ll take Jesus every time”. After that, the songs’ subject matter rather suggests someone randomly rummaging through their bookshelves, usually in the best possible way. The cast of principal characters says it all. Brothers is a perfectlyrendered glimpse of John and Bobby Kennedy, talking about nothing much at all on the eve of the doomed invasion of Cuba in 1961. Putin, first released online last year, lampoons its subject with obvious glee, and by implication, cocks a snook at Trump. After that, there’s an imagining of the original Sonny Boy Williamson, staring down from heaven and wondering how the more-famous imposter who stole his name got away with it – and towards the close, two songs that step away from big figures, and evoke love and human frailty in the way only Newman can. She Chose Me is the self-explanatory sound of a serial loser wondering how he suddenly got lucky; Wandering Boy is a beguiling short story about a father’s love for a son who left him behind. Even in these songs, there’s a familiar sense that such small tales might somehow hold the key to much bigger subjects, and a simple realisation: in times like these, the very fact that their author is here is everything.
Man of the moment: Randy Newman, perfect for 2017’s travails.