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On Randy Newman’s New Album, America’s Greatest Pop Satirist Grapples With an Unsatirizable Age

And not just on the song about Putin.

Randy Newman performs on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles.
Randy Newman performs on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Randy Newman, as critics are contractually obligated to declare, is American pop’s satirist in chief, who for more than five decades has used his songs to biopsy the tumors in the American dream, from the slave-ship captain’s anthem “Sail Away” in 1972 to the 2012 birther’s lullaby “I’m Dreaming [of a White President].” Greil Marcus in his classic 1975 book, Mystery Train, placed Newman as a Southern California portraitist alongside Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler, not to mention the Beach Boys (both pre– and post–Charles Manson). A few years later, in fulfilment of that mission, Newman wrote “I Love L.A.,” so that Los Angeles sporting arenas would forever reverberate with the words, “Look at that mountain! Look at those trees! Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees!

However, many Americans know Newman better as the poker-faced jingle-meister who puts tunes and strings to the squishy sentiments of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., the mushmouthed crooner of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” In that pursuit, he has been nominated for 20 Oscars and, in typical Newman hangdog style, finally won two.
But that’s not bad considering that in 55 years of releasing pop songs—counting back to the promotional single “Golden Gridiron Boy” in 1962, a band-nerd’s jock-envy rhapsody on which a 19-year-old Newman sounds quite a bit like Elvis Costello—he has had one No. 2 hit, “Short People” in 1978, and one that came in at No. 60, “It’s Money That Matters” in 1988. (Others have fared better with his material, including Three Dog Night’s No. 1 with a funked-up “Mama Told Me Not to Come” in 1970, and Joe Cocker’s sexed-up and partially de-creepified “You Can Leave Your Hat On” in the mid-1980s).

In the 1970s, Newman’s Brechtian provocations arrived on a biannual cycle, but today “real” Newman albums come along only about once a decade. Prior to this week’s Dark Matter, there was the Bush-outraged Harps and Angels in 2008, the privilege-chafed Bad Love in 1999, and the at once nostalgic and dyspeptic Land of Dreams in 1988. Because they are so scarce, each new record tends to seem to devotees like a masterpiece on first contact, and then to fade away to a few highlights. So I’m hesitant to trust how taken I am with Dark Matter today.

Up front I can say there’s some daring new alchemy happening in the orchestral arrangements, calling back to Newman’s early alliances with Van Dyke Parks, Harry Nilsson, and by extension Brian Wilson. Opening track “The Great Debate” even includes some “space music” straight out of Sun Ra. It matches perfectly with Newman’s current creaky, wizened version of his earliest young-geezer voice (a Hollywood Jewish simulation of Ray Charles, while his piano style is out of Fats Domino). The freer hand may come from being 73 and really not giving a damn. Or it may be due to a confidence boost courtesy of the recent vogue for his crowd’s 1970s artisanship among younger musicians (Father John Misty, Tobias Jesso Jr., Joanna Newsom) and fans, the millennials Newman’s noticed coming to his shows not just to hear “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” He’s always been sensitive to such swells and sags in his own profile.

The album is not explicitly an anatomy of the Trump moment. There is a hooray-for-Putin tune (about his shirtless dictatorial preening, not election hacking), but he smartly left off the Trump dick joke song he wrote during the campaign, saying he didn’t want to contribute to the climate of vulgarity (and that was before we’d even met Anthony Scaramucci). Instead, Newman’s focus is on making a surprising late expansion of his lyrical technique. His usual method is to train an interrogating eye on some soliloquizing figures and let them gradually twist themselves (giddily, miserably, or both) into strangling knots. Here, instead, Newman often slips midsong out of one character’s skin and into another’s.

The opening, rollicking, eight-minute, science-versus-faith symposium “The Great Debate” features a preacher, a gospel choir, a gallery of “expensive scientists … I mean, eminent scientists,” and an intervenor who rises to point out that the preacher is just a patsy Newman’s setting up as a foil for his own opinions. Next comes the Jack and Bobby Kennedy dialogue “Brothers,” in which they at once plan the Bay of Pigs and rhapsodize over salsa queen Celia Cruz. On “Lost Without You,” a dying mother chastises her children to take care of their drunken and undeserving father, who is meanwhile consumed with dread and loss in an outer room. It’s a sequel to Newman’s own “Old Man” from 1972, in which he diffidently bids goodbye to a chilly father, reminding him there’s no heavenly reward waiting (“you taught me not to believe that lie”), and shrugging helplessly, “Everybody dies.” Now, Newman is nearer to the other side of that exchange, and he’s tormented by all the love there, going to waste.

It’s in this multiplicity of perspectives that Dark Matter does speak to our moment, in which Americans seem imprisoned in their points of view, unable or unwilling to see through one another’s eyes, on both the scapegoating right and the identity-essentialist left. Here Newman shows how malleable and varied subjectivity really can be, whether through the mostly true story of the two Chicago blues singers who both called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson (“Sonny Boy”), a character study of the high school friend who remained a surf bum while everyone else got old and serious (“On the Beach”), or finally a heart-rending serenade to a lost child, who by means of the song is suspended between death and life (“Wandering Boy”). In these songs, the here-and-now and past-and-gone all commingle with the great beyond. There’s a whole lotta epistemological shakin’ goin’ on.

Few American artists, after all, know as well as Randy Newman what it’s like to occupy two contradictory positions simultaneously. He’s known it since “Short People” became a sensation and short-circuited the gradual progress he’d been making to modest renown as a conceptual artist in an anti-conceptual medium, like a Warhol soup can labeled “Rock Star.” Suddenly he’d become the thing itself, and not for a song he was proud of. “Short People” worked at the same level of obviousness as “Yellow Man” on his second album, 12 Songs, which would be a racist vaudeville song except that Randy Newman wrote it, so it’s a song about the fact that there used to be racist vaudeville songs. He was demonstrating how easy it would be to return there—see, doesn’t this sound good, doesn’t this feel good? “Short People” likewise, is not a “satire of intolerance,” as its defenders usually say. The Eagles-sung bridge, directed at mushy ’70s liberalism—“Short people are just the same as you and I/ We’re all brothers until the day we die”—was a more withering parody than the rest of the song. And the rest of the song was designed to expose our collective mean-spiritedness, to force listeners to enjoy a bunch of bad jokes about short people in spite of themselves. The people who protested and the stations that banned it weren’t altogether wrong. As Robert Christgau wrote at the time:

Just why is it, do you think, that a radio station in Buffalo played the thing for an hour straight? Because Randy Newman fans so detest intolerance that they longed to hear it squelched 20 times in succession? Or because someone was finally voicing the hostility they felt—not just toward short people, although they definitely take the symbolic brunt, but toward every minority that has demanded gingerly treatment since first Nagasaki and then the desegregation decision put an end to official racism in this land?

Of course, this is exactly the game of today’s alt-right trolls, who camouflage their obscenities under the banner of humor and “irony” as a way of licensing hate. Newman doesn’t need to write a song about Trump, because he’s been writing about guys like him for half a century. Like Trump, the preacher reeling off bullshit about giraffes and evolution on “The Great Debate” is an example of one of Newman’s favorite targets, the American flimflam man, whether the duplicitous freak-show promoter on “Davy the Fat Boy” or the slaver in “Sail Away” or Depression-era Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in “Kingfish” (whose campaign song, “Every Man a King” which Newman also covers on his 1974 Southern-culture concept album, Good Old Boys, is a perfect template of Trumpian populism) or the devil in Newman’s musical version of Faust. He’s equal portions salesman, politician, crook, and of course entertainer, the part that Newman himself elected to play, even though the costume was always an uncomfortable fit. Given that his own style is so grounded in the ragtime and barrelhouse piano of his New Orleans roots, he can never forget that the DNA of American popular music is in the brothel and the traveling medicine show.

After “Short People,” Newman’s discomfort was manifested on the cover of his next album, 1979’s Born Again, which showed him as a rock star in KISS makeup with dollar signs on his face instead of stars, cat’s eyes, or batwings, sitting at a businessman’s desk writing a memo. Newman always had been implicated in his inversions of American realities, but after his taste of success, he’d become his own prime suspect, his own worst enemy. Many of the songs were deliberately loutish, making it hard to tell whether he wanted to repudiate “Short People” or to repeat it. (The lead number, “It’s Money That I Love,” was a vicious caricature of rock star venality in what was then metamorphosing into Reagan’s America: “They say that money can’t buy love in this world/ But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine and a 16-year-old girl/ And a great big long limousine on a hot September night/ That may not be love, but it is all right!”)

It was also around this time that he committed himself to the family business of scoring Hollywood films, as his uncles Lionel, Alfred, and Emil had done, not to mention several of his cousins. He was giving himself a day job so that he’d never again be tempted to chase a hit. Of course, that day job was another contradiction, making him a worker in capitalism’s dream factory—his primary client over the years, obviously, has been Disney. (He was lucky he’d never happened to write some perverse song about Mickey Mouse.)

Soundtrack work offers him the opportunity to do the thing he most purely loves, conducting orchestras. (He jokes that he loves telling musicians more skillful than he is that they’re doing it wrong.) Writing songs, on the other hand, he always insists he hates, no doubt because it’s the work by which he judges his life. He’s also said he defers to his wife in almost everything, except that he can write whatever he chooses to write. He probably tested the boundaries most with Bad Love’s “I Miss You,” a song he wrote for his first wife long after he’d married his second. You can imagine him weighing the pros and cons and deciding it was worth the grief in order to express a truth that had never been spoken in a love song before, in a world with as many love songs as there are greenhouse gases in the sky. Newman’s usual quota is one pure love song per album: Here it’s fulfilled by “She Chose Me,” a much more flattering song for one’s partner (“From time to time, I ask myself/ Why was it I, and not someone else?/ The most beautiful girl that I’ve ever seen/ And she chose me”) whose poignancy is only slightly compromised by the knowledge that Newman wrote it not for his wife but for a character on the 1990 pilot of the notorious musical police drama Cop Rock, although it was quite touching there, too.

When he doesn’t force himself to write songs, meanwhile, Newman gets to enjoy the cushy existence of Hollywood hired help, his genius hidden in plain sight. What’s made him perhaps the greatest-ever songwriter on the subject of hypocrisy is that he sees not only its evils but its inevitability. He despises greed and intolerance, but he doesn’t anticipate them ever going away, and he can live with that with only mild chronic discomfort. The British journalist Jon Ronson made the best Randy Newman joke ever when he titled his short documentary about him I Am, Unfortunately, Randy Newman. (Family Guy, meanwhile, made the worst, but best known, Randy Newman joke, “Randy Newman sings about what he sees,” which aside from his mumbly throwaway vocal style got absolutely nothing right about him—his songs are about as far from observational humor as a 19th-century Thomas Nast cartoon. In an interview on the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, the usually affable Newman couldn’t pretend the joke didn’t piss him off, not because he can’t take what he metes out, but because it offended his standards for accuracy in satire.)

Newman has kidded in interviews that it might be a career-ending moment for him when the interlocutor in “The Great Debate” interrupts the preacher’s handclaps and horns to inform him that “the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and communist, creates characters like you as objects of ridicule. He doesn’t believe anything he has you say, nor does he want us to believe anything that you say. It makes it easy for him to knock you down—thus, the strawman.” Here he is giving away his whole M.O.

But noticeably on the rest of Dark Matter, there really aren’t many strawman characters (depending how you take his depiction of Putin). In a culture that has powerful liars and their media propagandists on television stuffing straw into stitched-together villains’ costumes 24 hours a day, and under a president who weaponizes farce, Newman realizes that satire has become redundant, so he starts off by exposing his own tricks, to challenge himself not to fall back on them. In Newman’s best work, his secret always has been that as much as he deplored his targets, he also loved and understood them, that they were no more despicable than he was (though that might be quite despicable indeed). On most of Dark Matter, though, the moral status of any given character or situation becomes beside the point.

The album’s title refers to the invisible, intangible material that scientists theorize may actually make up the majority of the universe, and these nine songs are similar in that they ask us to accept that many people, scenarios, and perspectives we’re not inclined to share might coexist, without excluding or canceling one another out. It’s a self-aware, mature, and almost indecently musical excursion into “negative capability,” as John Keats called it, “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Or at least, since it’s Randy Newman we’re talking about, and this is, unfortunately, America, the irritable reaching is kept to the bare minimum needed to poke at a falling star or two along the way.

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