Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review

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This is the best Randy Newman album since 2008’s Harps and Angels – which is not saying much, seeing as Harps and Angels was his last album. But it’s also saying a lot: that Randy Newman is nothing short of the most consistent albums artist of his generation, biding his time and releasing near-perfect works once a decade for the benefit of us who know him for more than just the Pixar soundtracks that have made his fortune.

It opens with three of his all-time greatest satires. First up is the 8 minute display of genius ‘The Great Debate’, in which science is put up on trial against religion and comes out losing 3-0 because, and this joke kills every time, a gospel choir keeps butting in to declare: ‘I’ll take Jesus every time!’ And when Mr. Randy Newman himself, a long-standing and well-known atheist, is called to the stand and accused of using straw men arguments in his songs to mock religion… well, I can’t quite convey how ingenious the comic value is, you must simply hear it for yourself. Then comes ‘Brothers’, with the novel idea that John and Bob Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs in order to rescue Celia Cruz and bring her back to America, perhaps a little like the slave trader who wanted to rescue poor Africans in ‘Sail Away’. And then there’s ‘Putin’, which mocks that awful leader with a precision that becomes all the sharper if you listen to it whilst browsing through these recently released macho photos of him on holiday in Siberia. ‘Makes me wanna be a lady!’ indeed.

As is par for the course with any new Randy Newman album, the somewhat grotesque satires that adorn Dark Matter have been met with bafflement by some (there are people who still believe that ‘Short People’ is a genuine attack on midgets), which is excusable for casual listeners, but for critics who get paid to listen closely it’s unforgivable. This review in The Observer really irked me, complaining that ‘Putin’ ‘pokes way too gentle fun at Russia’s dark lord’, which makes me wonder if they noticed the line ‘He can power a nuclear reactor/With the left side of his brain’ at all, but also demonstrates their lack of understanding of the way in which Newman’s best songs work. Like a good Louis Theroux documentary, they seek to humanise monstrous men, including racists and misogynists and slave traders, so as to get our brains actively questioning any assumptions we might hold about them, without ever denying their essential awfulness. We want to know why his characters are bad people, not to be told that they’re bad people, which would be the sign of a lesser songwriter.

Worse, there’s this misreading of ‘The Great Debate’ on Exclaim: ‘The whole thing is musically scattershot, and only follows a logical thread if you can entangle where Newman is being earnest and where he’s not’. Newman’s earnestness is really irrelevant: like any great satirist from Jonathan Swift to Trey Parker/Matt Stone, he deliberately obscures where he’s coming from in order to skewer the pretensions of both sides of the argument at hand, in this case science vs. religion. Good satire shouldn’t take sides, at least not overtly – that’s for propaganda.

Accusing it of being ‘musically scattershot’ meanwhile is no less simple-minded. Really that should be changed to ‘musically complex’, and I’m sure you’d agree that musical complexity is no bad thing when the complexities massage the jokes and tease out hidden ironies. As they do all over Dark Matter, for example when an Americanised version of Cuban dance music strikes up as the Kennedys start yapping on about Celia Cruz on ‘Brothers’. Or when the Putin Girls pop up as backup singers to prop up the leader’s tenuous ego on his song. Or when ‘The Great Debate’ switches from Dixieland jazz to church hymnals and back again as the argument zips from secular to religious. The arrangements are without doubt some of the most complex of Newman’s career, but unlike that Exclaim writer I found disentangling them to be a constant reward, because nearly every time there was an outstanding joke behind every choice.

Elsewhere across the most consistent album of the year (so far): there’s an amazing real-life tale about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose identity was stolen after he was murdered; there’s a rerecorded version of a so-so theme tune to 2003 detective series Monk; there’s a poignant love song that sounds like a present tense rewrite of Toy Story 2’s ‘When She Loved Me’. They all dispel the notion, in case anyone still believed it, that Newman’s merely a one-trick-pony ironist.

If Dark Matter‘s not as passionate as Good Old Boys, or as precise as 12 Songs, there’s still more than enough here to keep us busy unpacking until the next release. Which according to the current work schedule will be in 2026, when the great man’s 82 years old. I can’t wait to discover what new insights he will have uncovered by then.

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3 thoughts on “Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review

  1. Great review, it’s really interesting to hear the thoughts of someone who loves this album and I like the fact that you addressed some other critics’ opinions on it, which is something I think a lot of people shy away from too often, because it can really help structure an argument if incorporated properly. I’ve been listening to this on and off since it started streaming on NPR a week or so ago and, as much as I love Newman’s self-awareness and dry wit, which is very much up my comedic alley, I don’t necessarily think his prowess as a performer and a composer always matches the tone or overall presentation of much of the record. I’m glad your digging it more than me, but I’ll definitely keep giving it some more spins to see if it grows on me because, at the moment, it’s one of those albums that I respect and appreciate more than I would say I love in its entirety.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! That’s interesting to hear, do you like much of the rest of Randy Newman’s oeuvre? Because he’s an acquired taste I know, and I do find that I can only play him occasionally as he’s quite hard work to listen to, particularly in unpacking all the layers of irony. But I nearly always find that it’s worth the effort. I will be very interested to read your review of it, if you write one, which I’m certain will be a much more thoughtful critique than the ones I referenced here! Because of course I have no problem with disagreement over music, but it does get my blood up when paid reviewers casually toss off criticisms based on biases they clearly haven’t thought through. Thanks again for reading, and good luck with your future Randy adventures!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am partial to a lot of his early work, but this new album just hasn’t entirely clicked with me thus far, although I have had a good time with it for the most part. I’ve definitely been considering a review, but I tend to avoid reviewing records that I’m on-the-fence about, largely because my opinion is so likely to change after finishing it and I’d hate to have published something that even I disagree with haha. And yeah, you’re right, I’ve never understood why some people get so indignant when someone doesn’t like an album that they like because that’s probably just a matter of taste, but I still recognise that there is such a thing as a poorly structured or weakly reinforced argument when it comes to critiquing something as subjective as art. But anyway, I’ll take into account what you’ve said in your review and give this album some more tries at some point!

        Liked by 1 person

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