Uni­ver­sal truths

Timely re­turn from hia­tus for Amer­ica’s great ab­sur­dist song­writer. By John Har­ris.

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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.

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