We open in an arena in North Carolina, in “the heart of the Research Triangle.” Scientists are squaring up for an old-fashioned gladiator match against the religious to debate the big questions. “Dark matter: what is it?” goes the first one, thus providing our album with a title. The scientists crop up, the tempo changes, a space voice begins to answer and provides no real answer. Randy Newman becomes impatient, and puts up the non-answer against the option of the Lord – cue a gospel choir, erupting with cries of “I’ll take Jesus every time!” to a pounding beat.
And so Newman’s 11th album begins – a huge spectacle with a massive cast of characters (all presented with his syrupy voice, of course), leaping about between time and styles and offering a light-heartedly serious take on big issues surrounding the future of the planet. Newman has always been a master of offering a sideways look at topics and, paired here with his ability to present the straightforwardly emotional as you’ve never heard it before, he offers an album as accomplished as anything he’s ever done before.
Across the theatrical and the intimate, he explores his characters with a lyrical precision and musical excellence
Newman’s method of voicing multiple characters crops up elsewhere on the album. In the vaudeville-style ‘Putin,’ Newman skewers the Russian leader (“When he takes his shirt off/It drives the ladies crazy/When he takes his shirt off/Makes me wanna be a lady!”) by presenting his admirers and then Putin’s inner thoughts. In ‘Brothers,’ he voices John and Bobby Kennedy, planning the invasion of the Bay of Pigs before it morphs into JFK’s appreciation of Cuban singer Celia Cruz. We also have an extended version of ‘It’s a Jungle Out There,’ the theme from Monk – a jazzy swing piece detailing the dangers of life to a degree teetering on paranoia.
The singer shifts away from these ambitious theatre pieces with some intimate character studies. ‘Sonny Boy,’ the story of Sonny Boy Williamson’s stolen identity, sees Newman (as the singer) address the audience directly from Heaven, and it easily ranks up there with his best pieces. The bluesy shuffle style of the piece makes it an easy listen, although it boasts some wonderfully complex orchestration too. A similar approach is applied to ‘On the Beach,’ a song about a faded surfer (my least favourite of the album – the music is good, but I struggled to connect with the subject matter as much).
Lastly, the mainly piano ballads – here, in my opinion, is where you find the best songs on the album. ‘She Chose Me’ is an update of a love song written for failed TV police-musical Cop Rock. ‘Wandering Boy’ is a beautiful song about a father pining for his lost child – it’s the end of the album, performed solely on piano with a vulnerability that makes it all the more affecting – and the devastating ‘Lost Without You’ is almost guaranteed to bring you to tears. It follows an old widower remembering his wife’s last days – “Even if I knew which way the wind was blowing/Even if I knew this road would lead me home/Even if I knew for once where I was going/I’m lost out here without you”, he laments.
Dark Matter sees Newman remaining on top form, having crafted an album of material as strong as his best. Across the theatrical and the intimate, he explores his characters with a lyrical precision and musical excellence that is frankly unsurpassed. Dark Matter has it all, from history and humour to gut-wrenching emotion, and is well-recommended for music lovers everywhere.