Newman dives right in, quickly weeding out the fair-weather fans in favor of those willing to stick around for his particular brand of cringe-inducing observations.
Long before he ingratiated himself to the masses with kid-friendly soundtrack recordings for Disney and Pixar, Randy Newman was a singer-songwriter with a knack for acerbic, decidedly un-p.c. songs and more nuanced, emotionally heartfelt ballads. The latter informs his later, more commercial work, but it’s the former that built his reputation, and, with the appropriately-titled Dark Matter, he returns to this with aplomb. As on such classic recordings as Good Old Boys, Little Criminals and to a lesser extent, Sail Away, Newman dives right in with an opening track that will quickly weed out the fair-weather fans in favor of those willing to stick around for his particular brand of cringe-inducing observations.
From the same realm of unapologetic, sardonic social satire that birthed tracks like “Rednecks,” “I Love L.A.,” ”Short People” and scores of others comes “The Great Debate.” Adopting the guises of all the disparate sides of the political/theosophical/scientific argument, Newman imbues his characters with an on-the-nose level of pig-headedness that shows just how ridiculous each side can be. It’s the same southern simpleton throughout Good Old Boys (barely) updated for a contemporary audience. Here he puts himself on trial through the guise of a believer who also subscribes to the aforementioned “theories” in addition to the theological. Even his impartial believer in both science and the divine is taken to task by the blind followers of religious dogma after his fourth-wall breaking explanation of a strawman argument that sets up characters simply to tear them down. Placed as it is in the opening slot, “The Great Debate” serves as a one-act play/entry point into the album and as a lyrical return to form.
Vladimir Putin’s over-exaggerated absurdist character is taken to task on the overblown, Broadway-esque “Putin,” Newman’s ribald, sarcastic wit dripping from each and every line as the leader’s over-inflated ego makes increasingly ridiculous claims. It’s yet another timely piece of social commentary that is as smart as it is funny without appealing to the lowest common denominator; sample lyric: “He can drive his giant tractor/ ’cross the Trans-Siberian Plain/ He can power a nuclear reactor/ With the left side of his brain”). As with much of the album, this is an over-the-top, musically rich short story in miniature, Newman’s biting satire cutting through the cinematic arrangements that help underscore each track, making the album sound like the soundtrack to the latest Broadway smash.
It’s not all contemporary references, of course. Newman returns to familiar historical territory with Sonny Boy Williamson (“Sonny Boy”) and the Kennedy brothers on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Brothers”) as they go back and forth on their pending decision. After some typically speculative dialogue, the brothers land on a reason to save Cuba, that being Jack Kennedy’s love of a certain Cuban musician, Celia Cruz. From here the otherwise stately ballad breaks into a stylized Cuban groove over which over which the elder Kennedy brother opines, “Celia Cruz, Celia Cruz/ Greatest singer in the world today/ If she’s there and wants to get away/ Then bring her here to the USA.”
“Lost without You” finds Newman returning to the understated love song he’s always managed so well, sneaking them in amongst the more inflammatory tracks not to soften the blow, but to show the beating heart behind the often unrelenting wit. “She Chose Me” adopts a similar role following the litany of current nightmares that is “It’s A Jungle Out There (V2).” These moments help stave off the ever-encroaching darkness of Newman’s worldview. It’s a formula that worked well during his brilliant early years and remains just as strong in times of nearly equal turmoil. He’s the wise-ass fatalist snickering in the corner, poking fun at the stark reality of the state of the world. Then as now, we need him — for levity and perspective.