In November, Randy Newman will turn seventy-four years old. Despite his advancing years, he sounds exactly the same as he always has in his latest full-length release, Dark Matter, his eleventh studio album. That’s not a testament to virile youthfulness bursting forth from the record. To the contrary, Dark Matter fits comfortably into Newman’s discography because he’s sounded like a cantankerous old man from the very beginning. The masterful early albums 12 Songs and Sail Away sound like they were crafted by the most world weary human being imaginable, his very soul beaten down by years of cynicism-inducing spiritual abuse. He was still in his twenties when he made those.
Dark Matter opens with Newman extolling, “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” in the last moment of benevolence the album holds. Well, even that’s not quite true, as the sentiment drips with irony, introducing the atypically sprawling song to come. Across the eight minutes of “The Great Debate,” Newman presents the scientific and political arguments of the day as a moderated argument (“Next question, global warming/ Is it? And if so, so what?”), playing every role and alternately freely between vaudevillian showmanship, Broadway bombast, and co-opted gospel (the latter representing the “true believers,” who respond to every major mystery of the universe with “I’ll take Jesus every time”). The listening public is put on notice: Newman is going to do whatever the hell he wants to do.
Sometimes, that generally admirable credo doesn’t yield gold. “Putin,” a track about the Russian leader, is dopey and frankly beneath Newman. It plays like a song hammered together absentmindedly in a bid for attention. His ode to Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sonny Boy,” similarly would make a better opening number for a musical about the blues icon rather than an album centerpiece. That quality slips into other tracks on the album, giving it a veneer of skilled cast-offs rather than a cohesive artistic statement. Sometimes, that’s clearly the case, as with “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which was first written for the television show Monk, over a decade ago. That’s not uniformly problematic (Newman’s cast-offs are better than most songwriter’s pinnacles), but I couldn’t help but wish that the album grabbed me a little more tightly, with a little more urgency.
As much as Newman has been justly vaunted for his bleak comedy over the years, he’s at his best when he gives in to an inclination towards the quietly lovely, though even his sentimental streak is speckled with defeat. “Lost Without You” unfolds as the tenderest of love songs, briefly and gently obscuring its story of a dying woman and the grown children wary of looking after the drunken widower left behind (“They said, ‘Has he been drinking again?/ He stumbled at the door/ He can’t take care of himself, Mama/ We can’t do this any more'”). Album closer “Wandering Boy” is also tinged with loss, imaging a father worried about a son who’s gone missing. They’re poignant short stories rendered as lyrics, the piano kindly providing a melodic pulse.
Newman, of course, has nothing to prove. He can approach any new album with diverted attention and still wind up with something that can stand proudly within his discography. If Dark Matter is unlikely to become a major entry in the Newman canon, matching the genius of his first few records (or his finest movie scores, for that matter) is an unreasonable goal anyway. Uncompromising perseverance is achievement enough. If a few truly exquisite moments are delivered, too — and they are — all the better. Maybe the world isn’t all that wearying, after all.