It’s a little too easy to point out that 73-year-old Randy Newman’s first album in nine years, Dark Matter, coincides with a moment in which bigoted blowhards have taken over the country. If you know and love the sardonic story-songs that Newman has been writing since the late ’60s, you’re probably also aware that bigoted blowhards have always been in charge, and that this has never stopped fascinating rock’s most pungent satirist.
One of Newman’s specialties is writing beautiful tunes about ugly jerks. His other specialty is empathy — he makes you care about (or at least attain a modicum of understanding for) the flawed, the faceless, and the average.
My favorite Randy Newman song is “Marie,” from 1974’s Good Old Boys, his best, most essential album. A bitingly funny concept album about the American south, Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” an ironic anthem in praise of systemic prejudice with a chorus like a Jeff Foxworthy joke gone horribly awry. “We’re rednecks, and we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground,” Newman sings in a mock-goober drawl. “We’re keeping the n*****s down.” Even in 1974, when racist Archie Bunker was the main character on TV’s top-rated show All In The Family, “Rednecks” was an edgy, even reckless song. (Today, it would probably prevent Good Old Boys from even being released.)
“Marie” comes a few songs later. It is typically regarded as one of the album’s milder, more conventional tracks. But it’s anything but conventional for Newman — it’s a rare love ballad, albeit one couched in the perspective of a character. (According to this interview, it’s the same guy from “Rednecks,” an extremely Randy Newman twist.) Over simple, gorgeous piano chords augmented by unabashedly sentimental strings, Newman-as-redneck jerk likens his love to a princess, a rainbow, a river. But in the next breath, he admits that he’s only saying this because he’s drunk. Otherwise he wouldn’t have the nerve or inclination.
The man knows he doesn’t deserve his rainbow — he’s weak, he’s lazy, he’s never there when she needs him. Marie both brightens his existence and illuminates his worthlessness. “I loved you the first time I saw you,” Newman sings, lifting his braying basset hound croon to a melancholic upper register, a tender vocal flourish that never fails to rip my heart out.
A writer with a cynical mind and a romantic heart, Newman could be satirizing love songs with “Marie,” I guess, by making the protagonist a bad person who is not redeemed by the object of his affection. But I prefer to believe that “Marie” is really about how even the most worst among us are capable of achieving grace, if only for a uniquely vulnerable moment. The power of “Marie” is that “Rednecks” also exists as its dark flipside. But no matter Newman’s generally sardonic worldview, it’s the underlying humanism of “Marie” that moves me deeply.
The best Randy Newman songs unfold like short stories that create entire worlds from just a handful of evocative sentences, allowing the listener to spend a lifetime filling up the remaining space. Dark Matter‘s highlights demonstrate that Newman hasn’t lost his touch in that regard. “Lost Without You” is a quietly devastating beauty, about an elderly woman who finally concedes that she can no longer take care of her dementia-addled husband. There is also “Wandering Boy,” a tearjerker about a grandfather who wishes the best for his prodigal grandson: “I hope he’s warm and I hope he’s dry / and that a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye / and I hope he has someone close by his side / and I hope that he’ll come home.” These gently sketched character studies continue to linger in the mind long after the album ends.
Other tracks are a little longer and wordier. Much of Dark Matter resembles musical theater, like when Newman adjusts his surprisingly nimble slow-molasses tenor to voice both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in the Bay Of Pigs-themed samba “Brothers.” Newman is equally adept at embodying a blues voice in “Sonny Boy,” about the late musician Sonny Boy Williamson, or the more generalized, put-upon smarm of hucksters, whether they’re small-time (like the guy who narrates the jazzy “It’s A Jungle Out There”) and international (the eponymous subject of “Putin,” whose crimes are enumerated against a musical backdrop of carnivalesque bombast).
The centerpiece of Dark Matter is the sprawling eight-minute opening track, “The Great Debate,” in which partisans for science and religion square off against each other in a battle over the future of humanity. “Dark matter, what is it?” Newman asks, in the voice of a game-show host, wondering if the studio audience prefers “the Lord, faith, eternity, whatever” to knowledge.
“I’ll take Jesus every time,” replies a choir, signaling a musical pivot from Gershwin to gospel.
Later in the song, Newman goes meta, calling out himself, “the author of this little vignette,” for creating characters “as objects of ridicule.”
“He doesn’t believe anything you say, nor does he want us to believe anything that you say,” Newman says in the voice of a Randy Newman critic. “Makes it easy for him to knock you down, thus a straw man.”
For a generation that knows him as “the Toy Story guy,” a Family Guy punchline who is a ubiquitous presence on annual Oscar telecasts, it will be shocking to learn that Randy Newman was really the boomer Father John Misty all along. (I’d be curious to ask Newman if he’s heard Pure Comedy, and whether he was inspired to show this Misty kid a thing or two about how to write a biting, anti-religious screed.) But long-time admirers might miss the snappier songwriting of Newman’s ’70s prime, when his tunes rarely exceeded three minutes (and often not even two) and yet managed to include choruses that were catchy enough to entice the likes of Three Dog Night to turn them into actual pop hits.
Because I am a total sap, the song I like the most on Dark Matter is also the sweetest, the “Marie”-like strings-and-piano ballad “She Chose Me.” Once again, Newman plays a sad-sack loser: “I’m not much to talk to, I know how I look, what I know about life comes out of a book.” And, once again, the loser can’t believe that even a lowly person like himself is allowed to be in love with a special someone. I keep getting a speck of dust in my eye whenever I play it.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Newman derisively alluded to “She Chose Me” as the kind of “straight ballad” that even his ardent fans tend to prefer. “But it’s not what I like best,” he added. That’s just the “cynical mind” part of Newman talking, the guy who would rather be a brilliant wiseass deconstructing the bad people who control us than cop to his romantic heart.
Like the characters in his songs, Newman has trouble revealing himself without a stiff drink or a degree of subterfuge. But you can see what’s in Newman’s soul by listening to the strongest songs on Dark Matter, in which defective nobodies valiantly attempt to carve out small spaces for themselves to live and love amid the chaos and devastation of existence. In spite of himself, Randy Newman at heart is a bit of sap, too.