By Brian Wise.
RANDY NEWMAN – DARK MATTER (NONESUCH)
“Randy Newman is a national treasure,” observed Don Henley recently in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “He’s a songwriter’s songwriter; a musician’s musician. He’s also probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated recording artist alive.”
“Sometimes, he’s kidding; other times he’s being serious,” continued Henley who is right on the money, “and sometimes, he’s being both, simultaneously. He is somehow able to take on stereotypes and make them both heroic and pathetic.”
Henley recalled how when he inducted Newman in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 he noted that though Newman had been born in Los Angeles he spent many boyhood summers in New Orleans and that the Southern melting pot had an impact on his music. That is absolutely evident on Dark Matter – perhaps the most appropriately titled Newman album ever! There is music hall, light opera, touches of Stephen Foster and, occasionally rock ‘n’ roll. This some of the most sophisticated music we are likely to hear this year.
Dark Matter was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by long-time Newman collaborator Lenny Waronker, along with Mitchell Froom and David Boucher. The small studio ensemble includes Matt Chamberlain on drums, David Piltch on bass, Blake Mills on guitar with Mitchell Froom offering additional keyboard. It is the perfect combination for a recording where the voice and lyrics are foremost and it can also handle Newman’s musical twists and turns.
I keep thinkIng of the album as the soundtrack to a film of a novel such as John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of The Dunces or the music to a hit Broadway show.
The album’s nine songs, which include the scathing ‘Putin’ – released during the 2016 Presidential election campaign and hardly likely to endear him to Mr Trump – cover the full gamut of politics, religion, relatives, the blues and the complexities of modern life.
Of course, humour has been one of the major elements of Newman’s work since he began writing songs in the 1960s. ‘Old Kentucky Home’ released in 1970 – and also recorded by Ry Cooder as ‘My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine & Dandelion Wine)’ for his 1970 self-titled album – was a backhander to the South that might have got Newman into some trouble.
I recall seeing Newman at Jazz Fest performing ‘Rednecks’ (originally on the 1974 album Good Old Boys) and being amazed that some people thought he was serious and booed him! (They were definitely rednecks). Ironically, it was the song ‘Short People’ that got him into the most trouble!
Nearly fifty years after his first album Newman has lost none of his biting wit! It is guaranteed to have him barred from the Christmas card list of both Trump and Putin and I imagine Newman would be delighted at that result. If 2008’s Harps and Angels was, as claimed, a sardonic send-off to the Bush era, Dark Matter is a frightening greeting to the next four years.
The ‘cinematic’ scope of Newman’s music can be heard from the opening song ‘The Great Debate’ which sprawls across eight minutes and encapsulates almost everything about what Newman does. One can only wonder what the film clip might be like! It is almost a mini-opera in execution and you can sense how Newman uses his skills as a renowned composer of music for films to craft his songs (in fact the word ‘song’ hardly seem adequate for some of these marvelous stories).
‘Brothers,’ which follows, is ostensibly a song about the Kennedys but morphs into a tribute to Cuban music in a style that is reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks. The operatic ‘Putin’ recalls ‘Political Science’ but is even more mocking in tone (Vlad will not be impressed). The jaunty ‘It’s A Jungle Out There’ might be a handbook for modern times as he sings wryly, ‘You know what’s in the water that you drink? Well I do and it’s amazing.’ It doesn’t get any cheerier. ‘Sonny Boy’ is about the bluesman’s stolen identity.
Then there is the other side of Newman, who like a lot of comedians uses his humour to disguise deeper thoughts – the really dark matter. ‘On The Beach’ is paean to the idyllic days of youth. ‘She Chose Me’ is gently self-deprecating. ‘Lost Without You,’ the story of a widower’s children visiting their mother for the final time is even sadder than the title suggests. ‘Wandering Boy’ finds Newman solo at the piano singing about his prodigal son. (“If you see him, lead him toward the light”).
Like the superb new David Rawlings album Poor David’s Almanack, Dark Matter seems like it has emerged from another era – one where truly great songwriting still matters. Wonderful.