Album Review of "Dark Matter" by Randy Newman

 

Can Disney Darling Randy Newman Return to His Dark Roots?

Dark Matter is the work of a decidedly post-Disney Newman—a man who would sooner lead us to compassion than shock but who, like the pre-Disney Newman, still points out how this world is riddled with some pretty dark matters and how, sometimes, the best way to face the absurdity of it all, is with humor. 

Genre: Pop

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Dark Matter by Randy Newman 

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Album Review: Dark Matter by Randy Newman
Can Disney Darling Randy Newman Return to His Dark Roots?

This is a transcript of Ep. 8 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here

Welcome to What’s This Album About?, the podcast that looks at lyrics to find the meanings and messages of today’s best songwriters. I’m Bobby Waller, and this episode is dedicated to Randy Newman’s new album, Dark Matter.

        ♪ Dark matter
            Give me someone knows something about space

Dark Matter is the first album that veteran singer-songwriter Randy Newman has released in nine years. It’s aptly named because it deals with some fairly dark matters—though usually through Newman’s famously quirky sense of humor and occasionally with moments of sincere tenderness.

The term “dark matter” is used explicitly in the opening track, “The Great Debate,” which we’re hearing right now. It begins with Newman voicing the persona of an emcee.

        ♪ Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to this great arena!

He announces that there will be a debate between scientists on one side…

        ♪ We got biologists, biometricians
            We got a quantum mechanic, an astro-physician

and religious people on the other.

        ♪ We got the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians
             The Episcopalians are here. Pass the hat!

In the first round of questioning, the emcee asks the scientists to explain dark matter.

        ♪  Where is it? What is it? Can we get some?

Their spokesman explains dark matter in vague terms backed by dissonant, arrhythmic music,

        ♪  Dark matter is out in space
              It’s 75% of everything

which the emcee unsuccessfully tries to dissuade him from using.

        ♪  Do yourself a favor, sir
             Use our music
             People like it
             And your music is making people sick

By contrast, the religious side responds solely with lively, loveable gospel music.

        ♪  I’ll take Jesus! I’ll take Jesus! I’ll take Jesus every time!

The religious side wins Round 1, and the pattern continues in Round 2 with the scientific response to a question about evolution being woefully unsatisfying compared to the religious response, which is, once again, lively gospel music. But the pattern breaks in Round 3 when someone from the religious side responds to a question about global warming by bringing Newman himself into the conversation. He warns the emcee not to give in to Newman’s manipulative songwriting tactics.

        ♪  You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman
             Self-described atheist and communist
             Creates characters like you as objects of ridicule
             He doesn’t believe anything he has you say
             Nor does he want us to believe anything you say

He implies that Newman’s characterizations are self-servingly simplistic and not reflective of reality.

        ♪  I myself believe in Jesus. 
              I believe in evolution also
              I believe in global warming
              And in life everlasting
              No one can knock me down

But just as we start thinking this may be the song’s ultimate voice of truth, another voice rises from the religious side.

        ♪  Oh, we can knock you down, mister
             We can knock your communist friend down, too
             Communist? And you call me an idiot? 
             We been knockin’ people like Mr. Newman down for years and years

And the way they’ve been doing it is with great gospel music.

        ♪  I know someone is watching me, everywhere I go

I love the way Newman brings his own career into the arena of consideration. It’s a device that may be useful for some listeners, because, for the past 22 years, Newman has been most visible as a Disney darling, writing music for such children’s classics as A Toy Story,

        ♪  You got a friend in me  

Monsters, Inc.,

          I wouldn’t have nothin’ if I didn’t have you

…and many more.

But before that, he was best known for doing exactly what the complex evolution-believing, global warming-believing religious character in “The Great Debate” warns us about—voicing characters with absurd beliefs so we can hear just how absurd these beliefs sound when memorialized in song. He did it infamously on his controversial 1972 song “Rednecks,” which he sings in the narrative voice of a white supremacist,

          Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show with some smart-ass New York Jew

...and perhaps most notably on his 1977 hit “Short People,”

          Don’t want no short people
             Don’t want no short people

…a song written from the perspective of someone with a patently absurd prejudice against short people. The song garnered intense censure from detractors who didn’t quite get what Newman was up to and rebuked him for what they perceived to be his actual disdain for people of below-average height.

Newman never gets quite that provocative on Dark Matter, but his dark sense of humor remains in tact, as does his penchant for voicing narrators whose opinions vary greatly from his own. The song “Putin,” for example, is partially written from the perspective of someone who uncritically idolizes Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

          Putin puttin’ his pants on
             One leg at a time
             He’s just like a regular fellow
             He ain’t nothin’ like a regular fellow

And the predilection for unexpected endings that he demonstrates in “The Great Debate” is also evident in the song “Brothers,” a dialogue between John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby.

          Hey, Bobby, why you standing in the shadow?

JFK wants to go to bed, but Bobby implores him to stay awake for a meeting with a representative of a group of Cuban exiles who want to overthrow Fidel Castro and reclaim Cuba in the name of democracy through an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. 

          This man has a plan to overthrow the government there
              With a very small expeditionary force

At first, JFK declines the meeting. But then, in a surprise twist, he thinks of a reason to sanction the Bay of Pigs Invasion after all. Cuba, he remembers, is the home of singer Celia Cruz.

          Celia Cruz, Celia Cruz, the greatest singer in the world today
              If she’s there and wants to get away
              Then bring her here to the USA

But humor is not the only way Newman responds to life’s darkness. Four of the nine songs on Dark Matter are genuinely sincere and sympathetic about the dark matters their subjects are facing. “On the Beach," for example, tells the story of a man named Willie, who, like the peers of his teenage years, used to frequent the beach, but who, unlike his peers, never left the beach and is now old and apparently homeless.

          Nice to see you, Willie, still on the beach

But my personal favorite of the serious songs on this album is “Wandering Boy.”

          Where is my wandering boy tonight? 
              Where is my wandering boy? 
              If you see him, push him toward the light
              Where is my wandering boy?

It’s sung from the perspective of a father who has four adult children, the youngest of whom did not transition smoothly into adulthood and who, like Willie in “On the Beach,” is prone to homelessness.

           I hope he’s warm, and I hope he’s dry
               And that a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye
               And I hope he has someone close by his side
               And I hope that he’ll come home

Randy Newman’s career can probably be divided into three distinct phases. The pre-Disney Newman ruthlessly jarred us with shocking songs about absurd prejudices that shed light on the abject absurdity of prejudice itself. The Disney-era Newman wrote background music to sentimentalize children’s movies. But Dark Matter is the work of a decidedly post-Disney Newman—a man who would sooner lead us to compassion than shock but who, like the pre-Disney Newman, still points out how this world is riddled with some pretty dark matters and how, sometimes, the best way to face the absurdity of it all, is with humor. 

          Celia Cruz, Celia Cruz
              The greatest singer in the world today
              If she’s there and wants to get away
              Then bring her here to the USA

Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About? If you get a chance to like, comment, share, or subscribe, we’d really appreciate. Find us onFacebookTwitterInstagram, iTunes, all the usual places. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to keep your sense of humor. And keep your ears open, because

the more you listen, the more you love.

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