Randy Newman might spend his whole life sitting at a piano with CNN on in the background. He might spend it in a soundtrack factory. He might spend it walk down various streets while songs miraculously emanate from him. Wherever he’s been, he’s back with his first album in nearly a decade, Dark Matter. He maintains a steady Newman sound throughout, but he’s essentially put together a variety show, blending some comedy, tragedy, and romance (and, yeah, some farce) on top of orchestral arrangements ready for the stage.
About 20 percent of the album’s runtime comes from its bizarre and wonderful opening number, “The Great Debate”. Newman invites scientists, rationalists, and materialists into conversation with the religious and the spiritual to get “some answers to some complicated questions”. The song is a show unto itself, with a shifting cast of characters to match a moving set of genres. The conversation seems to mock and welcome everything, comparing the scientific concept of dark matter to spiritual concerns (and punning on the phrase for the album’s titular concerns). Eventually one of Newman’s characters goes after both Newman and his primary narrator in calling the whole thing, accurately, a fabrication. If it weren’t so well executed, the song would wear off as a novelty, but Newman’s people, conversations, and arrangements synthesize into a scene you don’t mind re-watching.
The album swirls around with a wide expanse of concerns, most put into precise character studies. “Brothers” takes a someone manic look at the Kennedys, following Celia Cruz sonically and geopolitically in a way that only Newman could pull off. “Putin” follows, providing a strange homage complete with the jazzy Putin Girls and Putin’s dismissal of his namesake singers, and a Russian viewpoint of post-World War II history. “Sonny Boy”, rather than being a slanted take on a historical figure, is a straight(ish) take on a slanted story, narrating an imagined encounter between Sonny Boy Williamson I and the name-stealing Sonny Boy Williamson II.
As engaging as those tracks are (particularly “Putin” and “Sonny Boy”), Newman’s best work comes with some of his more intimate stories. “On the Beach” (surprisingly not about Neil Young) could have come from Hollywood from 60 years ago, except for the freebasing Willie whose vagrancy remains amid the area’s changes. Newman doesn’t lean toward love songs, but “She Chose Me” movingly gives voice to a man surprised by his own beloved’s acceptance of him as, presumably, a bright moon rises somewhere.
The strongest and darkest songwriting closes the disc with “Wandering Boy”. Newman’s singer reflects on a child gone prodigal. The story hints at death but denies that potential storyline, instead releasing the grown child into the drift. The song crystallizes around the memory of the boy at a pool party at age five, “afraid of nothin’ then” and “loved by everyone”. That sharp moment of joy and peace makes the father’s questioning and untamed good wishes a poignant and lasting image.
That sort of matter gives the album its gravity, a centering point in the middle of the general burlesque. At this point in Newman’s career, fans can expect the orchestration and the indirect storytelling, the strange viewpoints and unusual characters. That’s what Newman does. And he’s still doing it well, turning his vision into music with renewed energy.