Randy Newman has carved a singular career as thinking person’s misanthrope. His Woody Allen-esque deportment and whistleable melodies have, across a half-century, been paired with lyrics that wash over the listener like an acid bath.
In between working on the next Toy Story soundtrack — he has built an unlikely second professional life as Pixar’s in-house troubadour — his latest album is as acerbic as fans will have hoped. The White House’s slow dance with Moscow is lampooned on Putin (“He can drive his giant tank across a Trans-Siberian plain / He can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain”) while, on the ‘Great Debate’, Newman delves into the cultural tensions between science and creationism in the United States.
There are bleaker moments, too. Newman reflects on the ageing process on ‘Lost With You’ and, on the devastating ‘Wandering Boy’, chronicles a father’s hope for contact with a missing son.
“The strange thing is, I think my writing has remained of a consistent quality as I’ve got older,” the now 73- year-old Newman once told me
“Received wisdom tells you that people are at their best in this art form between the ages of 20 and 30. I think my lyrics have gotten a little better. Otherwise the quality has stayed the same. I don’t know why that is exactly. The movie writing may be a factor. It kept me sharp because I find it so goddamn difficult.”
What makes the razor-blade wordplay palatable here are his sugar-spun melodies, upholstered with forays into the blues (‘Sonny Boy’) and honkytonk (the aforementioned ‘Great Debate’).
Fifty years on from his debut album, Newman is the definition of an acquired taste and Dark Matter’s pitch-black mood is unlikely to attract fresh converts. For devotees, it is a reminder why he remains one of pop’s great curmudgeons.
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