|Randy Newman||Dark Matter|
Randy Newman — Dark Matter (August 4, 2017) ★≡≡★≡→ The acerbic songwriting genius surveys hypocrisies and tragedies great and small.
Birth name: Randall Stuart Newman
Born: November 28, 1943, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Instruments: Vocals piano guitar
Location: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Album release: August 4, 2017
Record Label: Nonesuch
1. The Great Debate 8:09
2. Brothers 4:54
3. Putin 3:44
4. Lost Without You 3:54
5. Sonny Boy 4:42
6. It’s a Jungle out There 3:18
7. She Chose Me 3:12
8. On the Beach 4:31
9. Wandering Boy 3:04
By Mike Powell, AUGUST 7 2017 / Score: 8.0
♠°♠ Dark Matter is Randy Newman’s first album of new songs in nine years and his smart mix of cynicism and sentiment is fully intact.
♠°♠ I can think of no songwriter as fruitfully unhappy as Randy Newman. Not angsty — there are angstier — and not depressed in the poetic, European sense, but unhappy: that cow~eyed state in which the good stuff doesn’t feel that good and the bad stuff you just learn to laugh at. For 50 years he has delivered us obliquely sentimental, trend-free music about racists, losers, lovelorn deadbeats (“Marie”) and children who tell their parents to come visit anytime — but do call first (“So Long Dad”). His jingoists dream of liberation through atomic war (“Political Science”) and his wife~beaters complain of having to sit down when they pee (“Shame”). His is a world in which it sucks to be at the bottom and sucks to be at the top but at least the people at the top are rich (“The World Isn’t Fair”). Did I mention most of these songs feature an orchestra? Randy Newman can get an orchestra to pull tears from you like a pickpocket. His sleight~of~hand is to bring out a monster and make you see the human underneath. He makes the better part of his living writing music for Pixar movies, and has been awarded several Grammys for the work.
♠°♠ Newman’s new album is called Dark Matter, a phrase intended both in the scientific sense and the figurative one — “it’s a dark matter.” He has lost little of his bite and none of his humor. Comfortably into his 70s, with what many would call a very successful career behind him and still time ahead, he seems less interested in polemics than before, less interested in leveraging sentiment with disgust, giving over — ever so slightly — to a softer intention.
♠°♠ Take “On the Beach,” a breezy piece of café jazz about a guy named Willie who just…never left the beach. Willie isn’t out to screw anyone and yet — like all Newman’s American losers — he will invariably screw himself. Decades on, he’s still talking about the advent of the Hobie Cat the way some boomers talk about the Beatles — harmless, lost, reconciled to a past that isn’t coming back to pick him up anytime soon. Elsewhere, set to a piece of high~striding brass~band music, “Sonny Boy” tells the true story of Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues singer who travels north only to find another blues singer making a living under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy II ended up touring Europe and became royalty for white blues~rock bands like the Yardbirds and the Animals. Sonny Boy I was stabbed in the head with an icepick during a robbery in Chicago; his last words were reportedly “lord have mercy.” In Newman’s version, the lord does in fact have mercy, and Williamson becomes the first and ever blues singer to enter heaven, a mixed blessing that makes him feel lucky, lonely, and lame all at the same time.
♠°♠ Smart but never intellectual, given more to the words we use over the words we know, Newman peppers these stories with little references to the Great Migration, climate change (the swells on Willie’s beach keep getting bigger), global politics, and American myth. Another song, “Brothers,” uses an imagined conversation between a worried John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert about the Bay of Pigs invasion as a pretext for John confessing his love for the music of Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Newman, whose songs have been successfully covered by walking moose knuckles like Tom Jones and Joe Cocker, continues to sing like a great writer. Does it even need to be said that the people who love him really love him and the people who don’t just think he’s weird?
♠°♠ The centerpiece of the album is its opener, “The Great Debate.” An eight~minute piece of musical theater pitting ambassadors of science against those of religion, the song will at the very least serve as a stress test for anyone uncertain of whether or not they want to listen to a whole album by Randy Newman. As a sucker for irony, I admit I sometimes take too much pleasure in the simple contrast of Newman’s sweet, old~timey sound with the flat~footed cruelty of some of his lyrics. “The Great Debate” is, on that count, one of his most evolved musical jokes, one in which heathens — like Newman himself, who gets called out by name — are won over not by the wild, tambourine~beating sounds of a Pentecostal choir but the smooth, half~secularized thrust of soul. No longer the explicit, “I’ll take Jesus every time, yes I will,” the message becomes “Someone is watchin’ me” — God as a metaphor for reassurance, companionship, the friend who walks with you even when you walk alone. An atheist, history buff and avowed leftist, Newman is, as I take it, nodding to what he considers the universe’s true high power: music. Of course the church started to sing.
♠°♠ Newman has often joked that he would’ve been more successful if he stuck to love songs. Probably true. Personally I can’t begrudge people their escape — the world is a terrible place. But then he writes something like “Wandering Boy.” Tough, tender, mysterious and sad, the song narrates a simple neighborhood party — the kind Newman, who has spent most of his life in the same area of Los Angeles, has been going to since he was a child, through adolescence, multiple marriages and children, the kind that innocently and without fanfare becomes a fulcrum for the vicissitudes of life.
♠°♠ The scene is this: A father stands to thank everyone for coming, but strays quickly from his script into the memory of a son. “The Little Caboose, we called him, the light of her life. And that’s who I’m waiting for.” It’s not his only child — he mentions four others — but one is enough to lose. Death? No, he didn’t die. He’s still kicking around somewhere, maybe close, maybe far. Everyone at the party knows who the father is talking about — they remember him at five, standing on the diving board — but has been too polite, too ashamed to ask.
♠°♠ Newman based the song in part on the memory of a neighborhood boy his daughter swore would be president one day. He ended up lost, addicted to heroin. Discussing the song with Pitchfork, he said, “There’s no net in this country. In Sweden, you can’t get down there to the gutter. But you can here. So I tried to imagine what it would be like if one of those homeless guys that I see on the street a little ways away from here were one of my sons.”
♠°♠ Newman has often put himself in these situations, the voice for characters nobody should have to listen to, curator of moments nobody wants to name. It is a painful, interesting way to be. And if it isn’t love, then what does one call that feeling, and is there any more worth writing about. ♠°♠ http://pitchfork.com/
★ Randy Newman (1968)
★ 12 Songs (1970)
★ Sail Away (1972)
★ Good Old Boys (1974)
★ Little Criminals (1977)
★ Born Again (1979)
★ Trouble in Paradise (1983)
★ Land of Dreams (1988)
★ Bad Love (1999)
★ Harps and Angels (2008)
★ Dark Matter (2017)
|Randy Newman||Dark Matter|