RANDY NEWMAN Dark Matter
Uniting sardonic gospel songs with complex orchestral scores. By John Lewis
S ince the early 1980s, Randy newman’s day job has been writing orchestral scores for big Hollywood movies. Some might feature the occasional knockabout song – like “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” from Toy Story or “if i Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc – but newman’s primary role is to provide detailed, timecoded, instrumental underscores that bring the visuals to life.
These soundtracks have always been kept quite separate from newman’s increasingly rare, once-a-decade studio albums, where his croaky, sardonic vignettes are usually backed by an ornery barroom band, but Dark Matter finally sees him uniting those two professions. Here each satirical sketch is lavishly arranged like a miniature film score, with multiple characters, shifting points of view and dramatic lurches in musical style. earlier newman tracks – like the Brechtian “A Piece Of The Pie” (on 2008’s Harps And
Angels) or the episodic paean to Karl Marx “The World isn’t Fair” (on 1999’s Bad Love) – have attempted this, but none were as ambitious as anything on this album.
The opener, “The Great Debate”, is an eight-minute comic opera that imagines a latterday Scopes Monkey Trial between a panel of scientists and representatives from every christian denomination. it’s filled with sly musical and rhetorical gags: when a physicist is asked to explain “dark matter”, the underscore is replaced by a series of spooky, discordant sci-fi flourishes. “Just a moment, sir,” says the judge to the hapless scientist. “Do yourself a favour and use our music/Your music is making people sick.” After each scientific argument is ridiculed by gospelsinging believers, the characters in the song turn on “Randy Newman” himself (“A self-described atheist and communist”) for creating a strawman argument.
Throughout the album, the melodies stop and start like film scores: they change key, tempo, time signature and even musical genre to suit the flow of the story. “Brothers” imagines a conversation in the White House between John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby in 1961, lurching from a discussion of the Washington Redskins’ notorious refusal to sign black players to the imminent Bay Of Pigs invasion (a hawkish Bobby is overruled by Jack, whose only interest in cuba is his love for the singer celia cruz). “Putin” is a broader satire, a bombastic, cossack-themed stomp in praise of the Russian chief (“He can power a nuclear reactor/From the left side of his brain”).
The elaborate arrangements continue even on the more orthodox songs. “Sonny Boy” is a jaunty ragtime number where the veteran Tennessee bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (1914-1948) narrates