Randy Newman's Storytelling Shines Through On His New Album, "Dark Matter"
The famed film composer, Randy Newman, has released his 11th studio album with Dark Matter. This is his first studio album in almost ten years as he has mainly been working on film scores for Disney movies. While listening to this album it is hard, at times, to separate Randy Newman from Disney music. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it presents a sense of familiarity to a listener, but a lot of these songs sound like they could be from Hercules or Toy Story. The background vocals throughout the album are reminiscent of the muses in Hercules. Particularly on the song “The Great Debate”, where the background vocalist’s heavenly performance resonates with the muses in Hercules. Some of the more emotional songs on the album like “Lost Without You”, remind me of many of the more somber moments in any of the Toy Story movies. At first, this link between Randy Newman and Disney hindered my enjoyment of the music because I couldn’t extrapolate his nuanced satire and meaning in the songs with “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” stuck in my head. Once I got past this I realized the great strength of Newman’s music lies with this link to Disney. His lyrics and instrumentation contribute to his ability to create a vivid story within his songs.
The opening track and by far the strongest on the album, “The Great Debate”, satirizes the divide that we see in politics today between religion and science. The man that Newman portrays “disproves” many scientific concepts like dark matter and evolution and instead leaning on religion. The way that these topics are debated is also satirized as Newman sexualizes a woman scientist trying to explain evolution. The song breaches through the fourth wall as one of the true believers in science proclaim “You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and communist, creates characters, like you, as objects of ridicule!”. Creating colorful characters is often a staple of Newman’s music, but ousting himself as a character is a pretty interesting way of integrating the satire. The instrumentation within the song seems to follow the debate and helps create such vivid imagery. “It’s a Jungle Out There” is another one of the glaringly political songs as Newman comments on the “Disorder and confusion everywhere”. This song speaks in very vague terms for the most part until the end where he sings “So if you see a uniform/Do exactly what they say/Or make a run for it! I'm only kidding with you!”. When he really starts to dip his feet into possibly making a political statement he brushes it off as a joke. “The Great Debate” is really the only song that he really gets into it.
The heartfelt “Brothers”, follows a conversation between two brothers talking about everything from the Redskins to Celia Cruz. The conversation is a kind of negative nostalgia about Redskins and Russia/Cuba in the 1960’s. A somber song instrumentally with the piano in the background, “Brothers” lightens up when Mariachi style music begins to play when the narrator starts to talk about Celia Cruz. Again the instrumentation paired with the lyrics paints a picture for our ears.
“Putin” is the pinnacle of satire that Newman achieves on the album. Newman imagines Putin as a regular guy puttin’ his pants and hat on etc. Throughout the song Newman satirizes Putin not being satisfied by the Black Sea and wanting to take over the Mediterranean. With the focus on Russia’s influence on the election, this song leans more towards satire than a blatant political statement. In an interview with NPR Newman says that the song was inspired by seeing a picture of shirtless Putin. It easy to examine a lot of music being released as a response to current politics, but as is the case with “Putin” Newman wrote it before the election. It just seems as if the election has unlocked a sort of fever in a lot of musicians. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler said in an interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio that his song “I Give You Power” was written months before the election. Many more political songs have been unlocked by the events of the past few months rather than the election birthing these sentiments.
The duel songs of “Lost Without You” and “She Chose Me” tell crushingly sad stories about love. “She Chose Me” is especially beautiful as it tells the tale of a man who doesn’t understand why his wife chose him over everybody. In the same NPR interview, Newman says “both my wives are better looking than me” implying that “She Chose Me” is to some extent autobiographical.
The instrumentation can be bland at times as Newman’s sound is all too familiar. What saves the album from mediocrity (instrumentation wise) is Newman’s arrangement. The piano and horns come and go with the changing moods of the songs creating a dynamic flow to the album. The slow and fast songs alternate to where you never get too bored with the album. Randy Newman’s ability to create a story with his music is why he is such a great film composer and why this album is so fantastic.
Listen to the album on Spotify:
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