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Randy Newman - Dark Matter (Album Review)

Tuesday, 08 August 2017 Written by Jacob Brookman

Photo: Pamela Springsteen

Over 50 years, 11 studio albums and some 24 film scores, Randy Newman has gone from a b-list mercenary songwriter to an American musical institution.

He has provided the soundtracks to millions of childhoods through his work with Pixar (on the Toy Story films in particular), while navigating a potentially problematic set of creative paradoxes.

Eternal lyrical gloom has continued to rush from that comfy yacht-rock voice, while intense technical complexity has hidden in afternoon-tea, light jazz arrangements. His new album, ‘Dark Matter’, is his first of original songs in nine years and showcases these unique musical dichotomies.

We open with The Great Debate, which is an eight minute discussion between the religious and the scientific.

It’s Newman at his most confident, creative and varied, and it also channels two composers he cites as heroes in its musical theatre soulfulness: Leonard Bernstein and Ray Charles. It’s a fabulous piece of music; intensely innovative in both composition and arrangement. And, like the vast majority of the Californian’s catalogue, it never disappears up the colon of its creator. Newman is too goddamn misanthropic for that.

Another fine turn is Putin, which is introduced via skilful, Tchaikovsky-esque motifs and galloping orchestral arrangements. Despite this grandiosity, Newman’s tongue-in-cheek skits provide a satirical commentary that undermines - or at least distracts from - elaborate passing chords and deft switcheroos in tone and rhythm. It’s a technique that is deployed time and again on ‘Dark Matter’ and, like much of Newman’s catalogue, it leaves you feeling impressed, deferential and...disinterested.

The problem with ‘Dark Matter’ is that, having written cosy soundtracks for 25 years, it’s not really dark enough. It seems to pull its punches. Putin is notable for its musicality but the lyrics too often eschew lyrical discourse for slightly tedious gags: “Or, wait a minute / Even better / What if the Kurds got in the way? / Hey! Kurds and way, curds and whey!” The actual political message is unclear, which doesn't matter if you're writing a song called Love Me Do, but does matter if the song's called Putin.

The flaws present on ‘Dark Matter’ will not change the common understanding of Newman as a master and a fixture in the canon of American music. But it also fails to challenge the impression that he occupies the land of the middlebrow and the middle-aged: a place where a giggle is preferable to a belly laugh. In this regard he remains a master of mediocrity.





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