Essential New Music: Randy Newman’s “Dark Matter”

A new Randy Newman album is an event, something that only comes around once a decade. His latest begins accordingly, with a flourish, ushering in “The Great Debate,” an extravagant showdown between the amassed forces of science and Christianity. For an artist who tends to work within well-established modes, this is something new: a mini-melodrama, with a quick-shifting musical backdrop, wherein Newman plays all the parts and speaks more than he sings. It’s a masterful showpiece for his gifts as an arranger, cultural observer and all-around wit, but the overarching setup is perhaps a tad grandiose to stand among his finest work. Newman, at his best, can slyly reveal complicating, humanizing gray shades in even the most unsavory characters, something he suggests on otherwise gleefully cartoonish vaudeville fantasia “Putin,” as the shirtless autocrat experiences a hesitant, momentary lapse of egomania.

But while these two overtly topical production numbers are the LP’s biggest attention-getters and help establish its fluidly discursive compositional style, they’re outliers on a record that might actually be Newman’s most lighthearted collection. There’s the pure historical whimsy of “Brothers” (an imagined conversation between the Kennedys, pre-Bay of Pigs, set to a salsa beat) and “Sonny Boy” (a portrait of “the only bluesman in heaven”).

And we get several reliably tender ballads from a true virtuoso sentimentalist, especially the deeply touching “Lost Without You,” whose chorus bookends the wry, poignant scenario of the narrator’s wife, on her deathbed, defending him against their concerned and/or churlish offspring. Which doesn’t sound very lighthearted. But it’s Newman’s ability to paint such a scene with humor, affection and honest humanity that makes his albums so thoroughly worth the wait. 2026 can’t come fast enough.

K. Ross Hoffman