Randy Newman is so busy as a film composer (most recently with Cars 3) that we get new albums from him only about once a decade. But the guy’s got pretty good timing: Just as 2008’s excellent Harps and Angels served as a sardonic send-off to the Bush era, Dark Matter greets #MAGA America with his signature brutal comic irony and heartbreaking grandeur.
The nine-minute “The Great Debate” is a Broadway-scale throwdown between religion and reason that’s so nuanced Newman himself even comes on trial for the hanging offense of elite liberal condescension, and the laugh-out-loud “Putin” celebrates the dictator’s sexual powers with mock-heroic orchestration and backing singers that suggest the Andrews Sisters in heat. Some of the more sweeping moments can feel forced; “Brothers” mashes up JFK, RFK, the Washington Redskins, the Cuban missile crisis and salsa great Celia Cruz over a Latin groove.
Small-scale dramas hit home harder, like “On the
Beach,” a wistful Western-swing tune about a depressing aged surfer
burnout, and the devastatingly beautiful solo-piano lament “Wandering Boy,”
in which a father mourns a gifted prodigal son he hasn’t heard from in ages. “If
you see him, lead him toward the light,” Newman sings, a prayer that
resonates with our wayward national spirit.