Randy Newman at top of his game
By STEVEN WINE
Randy Newman’s new album includes a song cataloging American carnage titled “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which he says he doesn’t really believe.
Quite the opposite, in fact. His life is good.
Nearly 50 years into Newman’s recording career, he’s still widely beloved by the rock ’n’ roll generation, even though he never sang rock ’n’ roll. To judge from concert crowds, his appeal stretches far beyond his own demographic.
“There are more young people coming out the last couple of years,” he says. “I think they range from maybe the late 20s to 105, people my age.”
Newman is actually 73, and still at the top of his game on his first studio album of all-new material in nine years. “Dark Matter” is a typically engaging mix of topical tunes, quirky characters, history lessons and wry asides. The funny stuff is counterbalanced by a couple of love ballads, including the sad but beautiful “Lost Without You.”
“From the first day of this project, it was obvious he really wanted to push himself,” co-producer Mitchell Froom says. “He wanted it to be an audacious body of work.”
Topics include President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the bluesmen – plural – Sonny Boy Williamson.
The album opens with “The Great Debate,” a wild eight-minute examination of the science-religion divide with three voices, and Newman performs them all. It’s part Scopes trial and part “Bohemian Rhapsody,” unlike anything in the Newman canon, and ends with well-deserved applause.
“Three different voices is maybe not the best use of the form,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “But I couldn’t see a way out of it, and I’m satisfied I did the best I could.”
The cinematic approach makes sense, given Newman’s success as a film composer, and he believes the structure represents a step forward for him as a songwriter. He tries something similar on “Brothers,” where President Kennedy and his brother discuss the Bay of Pigs and Celia Cruz, with Newman delivering both sides of the conversation.
Froom says such ambitious songs were possible because of today’s tepid music marketplace.
“The way the industry is now – which basically is 99 percent negative – the one thing that’s really great is that in this environment, for Randy, doing something really different and pushing the threshold becomes a very good idea,” Froom says. “You’re not going to be facing a record company that is going to be disappointed or worried they don’t have a hit. There was no pressure to conform.”
Newman doesn’t keep up with music trends anyway. He says he can’t remember the last pop concert he attended.
He follows current events, however, and one result is the single “Putin,” which delights in the Russian leader’s screen-idol ambitions. It includes plenty of laugh lines, including a Greek chorus known as the Putin Girls, and a sly dig at Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
Putin might like it.
“When I finished the song, I realized it isn’t that critical of him,” Newman says. “He doesn’t come off that bad. It’s like I’m part of the Trump administration.”