New­man’s Dark Mat­ter a gem

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MAR­TIN

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.

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Randy New­man plays piano in this 2011 pho­to­graph.

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