Newman’s Dark Matter a gem
Rejoice America, Randy Newman has a new album. It’s called Dark Matter and we’ll get to it in a moment.
We don’t expect new albums from Newman these days. For the past couple of decades he has primarily produced movie music: scores and pleasant but limited-purpose pop songs for Pixar films.
He has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards and won two, and more people probably know him now for his seemingly earnest take on “You Got a Friend in Me,” written for 1995’s Toy Story, than for his withering “Sail Away,” a 1972 pop song that interrogates the American ideal of liberty. (Ostensibly a come-on from a slave ship captain trying to convince Africans to join him on his voyage to America, where “every man is free — to take care of his home and his family,” the song employs a beautiful, graceful sky-gazing melody croaked by a madman who ultimately delivers the menace-freighted lie: “It’s great to
be an American.”)
Before Toy Story, Newman was probably best known for “Short People,” his No. 2 single from 1977 in which a biased narrator expresses his misgivings about little folks. Some people took that song seriously — a state legislator in Maryland tried to make it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio — but the real misfortune is that it was received as a novelty record. He followed that up with “I Love L.A.,” which is most often taken as a straight-up celebration of our most provisional and uncentered city, even though it includes the lines “Look at that mountain! Look at those trees! Look at that bum over there, man, he’s down on his knees!”
Most people think of Newman as a croaky singer of a couple of weird novelty songs. A funny guy, maybe.
But it’s unfair to compartmentalize Newman as a quirky pop artist. He’s a funny guy in the same way Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift are funny guys. He’s a great American satirist and one of the most important artists this country has produced. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan — he’s in that class. The music he makes transcends rock and pop idioms. Rock is all about the unregenerative pose of rebellious youth; pop is about the glamour and image, the unreality of the photogenic elite.
You can argue that the actual music is simple, disposable and denatured once removed from its original context. A few artists aspire to — and achieve — something more than entertainment, but rock and pop are primarily commercial genres where a good record is one that sells (or streams).
Newman’s songs only sound simple. His piano playing and chromatic arrangements bespeak the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill and the classical jazz of George Gershwin, while his
conversational vocals align more with gutbucket blues. It’s this commingling of Old World high church and the American vernacular that give his work its distinctive flavor.
It’s difficult to imagine Newman ever being a teenager. His songs work on a level deeper than cheap irony, betraying the writer’s empathy for even the worst characters. He’s too subtle for the mass audience that habitually misunderstands his work, but he’s not entirely comfortable with his partisans either; smugness isn’t his metier. Lester Maddox wasn’t a cheap joke to him. The poor fellow with performance anxiety in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” isn’t some backwoods nitwit dragged onstage for your amusement. He’s a living, breathing, fretting human being with a full complement of sins and sorrows.
“Cherokee County” is on Newman’s 1974 album Good Old Boys, a song cycle about the army that fights for dignity not only in the American South but wherever the petit bourgeois congregate. It’s a monumental concept album that grew out of Newman’s empathy for, of all people, Georgia governor-elect Maddox, whom Newman thought was mistreated during an appearance on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show.
The album starts with the line, “I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show, with some smartass New York Jew” — a line that’s ironic on a couple of levels, given that Newman is Jewish and Cavett isn’t, and that this song takes off from this ill-informed point of view to castigate the rest of America for the smug hypocrisy that attends their institutional racism. Newman inhabits a truth-telling fool, who, while he has his problems, isn’t nearly so ignorant as he might seem to the chattering classes.
On his 1977 album Little Criminals, he included “In Germany Before the War,” a gem-like art song about child murderer Peter Kurten, who was the inspiration for Peter Lorre’s character in M. The lyric is simple poetry — not the rhyming poesy of most singer- songwriters, but a razor precise slice of telling detail delivered in the key of a lullaby. The melody is moody, a languid, oboe-ey fog that lies around the feet of Newman’s protagonist, who at first appears to be a harmless, contemplative little burgher. But then, in the second verse:
A little girl has lost her way With hair of gold and eyes of gray Reflected in his glasses As he watches her
Kurten, who was executed in 1922, told the court that condemned him he never “felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it.” Rather than drawing our attention to the banality of Kurten’s evil, Newman leads us to the more chilling revelation that all of us are able to justify our actions, no matter how atrocious they might seem to the world at large. That’s a far cry from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or even “Born to Run.”
But if Newman isn’t a rocker, he isn’t, as Ringo Starr put it in A Hard Day’s Night, simply a “mocker” either. He’s a grown-up, given to serious reflection and alert to the limitations of his agency, far closer to Kurt Vonnegut than Kurt Cobain.
And it goes without saying he wouldn’t get far on one of the pop singing competition shows with what he calls his “impoverished” voice. He has described himself as a “froggish man,” which isn’t quite accurate, but he has the mien and wardrobe of an English professor at a small, prestigious Midwestern college. He was born in Los Angeles, but feels small-townish.
Busy with his Hollywood work, he only sticks his woolly head above the parapet to release an album every decade or so. His last real album, a response to the administration of George W. Bush called Harps and Angels‚ came out in 2008. Before that it was Bad Love in 1999. Before that Land of Dreams in 1988. Over the past few years he has released four volumes of The Randy Newman Songbook, new solo piano and voice versions of previously released material.
He was more prolific in the ’70s, when he released five albums in a nine-year span, including 1972’s Sail Away and Good Old Boys, two records that cemented his place in the cultural pantheon — two records that ought to be taught in school.
But Newman was around before his reputation was made in the ’ 70s, in part thanks to Greil Marcus’ remarkable essay in his book Mystery Train, “Randy Newman: Every Man is Free.” His career goes back to 1962 when, as an 18-year-old, he released a single called “Golden Gridiron Boy.” That single flopped, and if you listen to it you’ll understand why. Newman’s voice is adenoidal, with a quality that places it somewhere between Buddy Holly and Alfalfa of the Little Rascals. (Later he acquired some gravel and grit, making his voice an effective if limited instrument. It’s not too hard to hear echoes of Newman’s chief vocal model, Ray Charles, in his singing.) The song is a slight ditty that takes the point of view of a band nerd whose girlfriend has fallen
for the football hero.
But Newman did enjoy considerable success as a songwriter in the 1960s, even before his 1968 debut album ( Randy Newman) drew to him a small but devoted following. He wrote songs that charted for Cilla Black, Gene Pitney and Alan Price. Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield covered his songs. In 1969 he handled the orchestral arrangements for Peggy Lee’s album Is That All There Is? including the Grammy-winning title song, which President Donald Trump has cited as one of his favorites. Three Dog Night had a No. 1 hit with his “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
On the new album Trump gets off easy, though Newman wrote a song about candidate Trump during the campaign. (He chose to leave it off the album because he saw no reason to contribute to “the vulgarity” of modern politics.) Still, the focal point — but not the highlight — of Dark Matter (Nonesuch) is “Putin,” an effective but somehow weirdly affectionate take-down of the Russian strongman ( He can drive his giant tractor/ Across the Trans- Siberian plain/ He can power a nuclear reactor/ With the left side of his brain) powered by heavy-handed Russian musical motifs.
It’s in the same vein as, though decidedly more minor, than Harps and Angels’ “A Few Words in Defense of My Country,” an arch eulogy for America as the world’s last best hope. It invoked the fall of the Caesars, the Spanish Inquisition and Leopold of Belgium. “Putin” is the sort of novelty song that casual listeners associate with Randy Newman — a smart, acidic joke that can be taken on a number of levels. As Newman has acknowledged, Putin might even like it.
But the real meat here is on the album’s opening track, an elaborate Broadway-style number that runs eight minutes and is comprised of the three-movement “The Great Debate.” Here Newman appears as a character, the atheist provocateur marshalling
an argument against faith, for science (“featuring the most expensive scientists in the world”) but ultimately coming up short against the power of faith and great gospel music as the song shifts from New Orleans jazz to weirdo psychedelia to churchy jive. It’s as cinematic and ambitious as anything Newman has ever attempted.
He follows it with “Brothers,” which imagines a conversation between Jack and Bobby Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs Invasion that morphs into a tribute to Cuban Salsa singer Celia Cruz. “Sonny Boy” is based on the true story of the blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Boy Williamson II, who co- opted his identity and, by some lights, outshone his model.
But the most moving and tender moments are contained in the ballads “Lost Without You,” “On the Beach” and “Wandering Boy,” in which Newman considers family issues and roads not taken, delivering unironic emotional jolts. He can make you laugh, but Newman has always been able to induce tears as well.
While not all the material is new, the retreads deserve their place here: “It’s a Jungle Out There” is a reworking of the theme song Newman wrote for the television show Monk that feels timely; “She Chose Me” was written for the ill-fated series Cop Rock, Steven Bochco’s 1990 attempt to fuse serious police drama with musical numbers, but it’s a marvelous ballad.
While Dark Matter doesn’t approach Newman’s early ’70s heyday, it’s a remarkably consistent, beautifully realized album for an age that doesn’t have much truck with albums. It’s what you’d expect from a national treasure, from one of the great Americans.
Randy Newman has released his first album of new songs in nine years.
Randy Newman plays piano in this 2011 photograph.