Randy Newman is a conundrum. He is a national treasure and dangerously redundant. He is acidic in his observations and sweetly sentimental. He is one of our most insightful lyricists but is frequently so inside of the joke, no one could tell it was a joke at all. All these are present on his new album, Dark Matter, and none at all. See what I mean?
The nine-song record features an all new track and re-recordings of songs Newman wrote either for other purposes or other people. The draw is the opening track “The Great Debate” which pits science’s elitism against religion’s absolutism. On the scientist’s side, pronouncements are made with ridiculous portent, such as would be heard in a sci-fi movie from the ’50s. Religion taunts in retort, “I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time,” as if it was a gospel hymn by way of “nyahh nyahh-nyaah nyaah-nyaah!” One is left to think that the point of the song is to highlight the intractability of these two sides, and their childish attempts at winning the debate. Instead, by the third section of the almost 9-minute song, a “true believer” steps from the shadows. He accuses Newman himself of playing to tropes to embarrass both sides and to feel smug. (Incidentally, Newman sings all the parts, so it can get a little twisted in its split personalities.) His argument is that Newman has chosen the worst of science’s blowhards and the worst of religion’s blind faithful with no greater intent to exact his contempt, “…hence, the strawman.” It is a clever turn of events as the song’s author takes a moment to call himself out on his own B.S.
Other highlights include the very funny, and frustratingly topical “Putin.” Sung from the position of a Putin loyalist, Newman speaks glowingly, exorbitantly, and mockingly. “Putin takes his shirt off, drives the ladies crazy. When Putin takes his shirt off, makes ME want to be a lady!” I’m also very fond of the theme song from the show Monk, “It’s A Jungle Out There,” the touching “She Chose Me” from the television debacle that was Cop Rock, and the equally tender “Lost Without You.”
But the other side of this is that Randy Newman sounds like Randy Newman, or rather, he has a few modes that he works in and that is it. His limitless wit and lyrical grace is countered by a musical familiarity that threatens to undercut the whole shebang. Remember how I said I really like “It’s A Jungle Out There”? I do, but cannot escape the fact it sounds way too much like “You Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story or “I Love To See You Smile” from the film version of Parenthood. Even the closing segment of “The Great Debate” shows strains of that ragtime pop. His sentimental songs pull confidently at the heartstrings but, still, tread overly familiar melodic territory.
I suppose there are worse crimes an artist can commit than sounding like his-or-herself. For what’s good on Newman’s Dark Matter, one can easily dismiss what’s not as good, such as that lingering musical deja vu, but the listener is forewarned to expect it. Much as Newman takes his tricks to task in the opening cut, you might take his composition tricks with equal derision.