BOTTOM LINE A brilliant masterclass in songwriting
Randy Newman’s new album, “Dark Matter” (Nonesuch), his first in nine years, shows exactly what great songwriting sounds like.
Comparing the nine songs here to the bulk of pop music today is like comparing LeBron James to the middle-school kids playing hoops in the park. It’s stunning how much better these songs are than “regular” songs.
Now, the attention-grabbers on “Dark Matter” are good, both at attracting people to Newman’s work and as music that holds their interest once they get there. “The Great Debate” is an epic argument between scientists and “true believers” over religion and evolution. “Brothers” imagines a conversation between John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy that talks about heavy issues before becoming an appreciation of Celia Cruz. And “Putin” is a comical take on the Russian leader, crafted long before he became a daily American obsession following last year’s election, where the narrator switches from a Putin fanboy to swooning female fans to the troubled leader himself. “Putin puttin’ his hat on — hat size number nine,” Newman sings over a musical backdrop that’s part Russian folk song and part honky-tonk. “You sayin’ Putin’s gettin’ big-headed? Putin’s head’s just fine.”
But even those imaginative ideas pale when Newman turns to topics that are more personal. He offers a rare straightforward love song in the simple, gorgeous ballad “She Chose Me.” And his tales of loss hit even harder. “Lost Without You,” the tragic story of a family dealing with both a mother’s terminal illness and a father’s own debilitating issues, is wrenching. However, “Wandering Boy” is even more poignant as it outlines a father’s wishes for his estranged son. The lyrics are so simple and so perfectly drawn that his images become indelible, haunting the listener the way the narrator is haunted by his missing son. It’s a “dark matter,” to be sure, but, like Newman’s album, one that will command repeated listening.