There’s something to be admired about older recording artists that just won’t quit. Randy Newman, at age 73, who hasn’t put out a full-length recording since 2008, is certainly one of these folks. Armed with an uncanny musical palette that somehow captures the nostalgia of a bygone era, Newman found lightning in a bottle in the mid 1970s through the early 1980s and his success continues today as he can be heard on countless Hollywood soundtracks.
Maybe the years of spewing out corporate soundtracks for Disney have worn Randy ragged, because it seems he used to be fearless, taking on all political sides, all social matters with an almost Mark Twain-esque voice, with this throwback vaudevillian, stripped-down, yet at the same time huge-sounding musical style. Or maybe Mr. Newman just wants to play it safe nowadays and keep that Disney meal ticket coming? Yeah, that’s probably it. ‘Cause somewhere down the line, he went from being a sharp liberal that would say anything in his music to this typical safe neo-progressive that only preaches to a specific choir.
There’s not much biting satire on Dark Matter. If you’re looking for Newman’s classic taboo skewering or controversy in the form of song, this album isn’t for you, you’ll be bored to death. There’s no song like “Rednecks” on this record. There isn’t a whole lot of subtlety either. All the lyrics are right on the nose, very obvious and literal. The whole composition comes off as quite faux-intellectual, it’s very I listen to NPR and I go around telling everyone that I listen to NPR ’cause I’m the kind of poser that needs that type of weird validation in my life from boring people around me. If you think A Prairie Home Companion is funny, this might be the record for you. It’s that humorless. It’s almost as if Randy Newman has gotten so blatantly political and out of touch at the same time that he’s forgotten how to be clever with his songwriting like he used to be.
The best track on Dark Matter is “It’s A Jungle Out There” and it’s not really even all that wonderful, but it’s the only song on the album that has a groove to it, that keeps moving without a bunch of stops and starts. The two songs folks are listening to, talking about, that are the “singles” are “The Great Debate” and “Putin.” “The Great Debate” is eight minutes too long. The best way to describe it is Frank Zappa in hospice. What I mean by that is close your eyes and imagine the worst Frank Zappa tribute band ever. Now, imagine them dying in hospice. “Putin” is Randy Newman trying his best to do a Weird Al song, just very badly. Actually, that’s an insult to Weird Al. It’s more like Randy Newman trying to do a Ray Stevens song. My apologies, Mr. Stevens.
A lot of the critics and fans are pissed there isn’t a Trump track on Dark Matter. They waited and waited for the Trump track to materialize. It never did. All they got was a Putin track and it sucked.