Buckle up. Randy Newman is back at the wheel. Over the course of his bizarrely expansive new album, “Dark Matter,” he triggers a debate between science and religion, offers a curiously Trump-less parable about Vladimir Putin and sends the whole party crashing to the ground with a requiem that is likely to bring you to tears.
This would be considered business as usual for one of the country’s most wickedly original songwriters if it weren’t for the fact that Newman hasn’t released an album of new songs since “Harps and Angels” nine years ago (almost to the day). Given his ongoing career as a film score composer, the implosive mix of the acerbic and sensitive on his song-oriented albums doesn’t get to detonate often. On “Dark Matter,” though, Newman stops just short of going nuclear.
The opening “The Great Debate” reaffirms the realization that Newman’s songs, outside of Pixar mode, aren’t always the most accessible of artistic endeavors. Over the course of eight minutes, he presents a Faustian showdown between faith and science (a perhaps understandable estimation given how Newman created an entire musical around the Faust legend in 1995) that comes across like a game show from “The Twilight Zone” when the moderating panel is introduced. “We got he doctors, she doctors, knee doctors, tree doctors,” sings Newman is his usual sleepy tenor. “We got a lumberjack and a life coach.”
Where do you go from there? Try the early 1960s for “Brothers” and a discussion between John and Robert Kennedy on the impending Bay of Pigs invasion that descends into a love letter for Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Then Newman takes the time machine back to the present for “Putin,” a pre-collusion parable of the Russian leader that offers an unlikely nod to the Bluegrass State (“Sometimes a people is greater than their leader — Germany, Kentucky, France”).
Newman dresses these tunes with fitting orchestration: gospel fervency for “The Great Debate,” string elegance that melts into a samba on “Brothers,” and percussive chill and bombast for “Putin.” It’s all disturbing fun until Newman gets stark and personal. At the close of the circus that fuels “Dark Matter,” the orchestra is dismissed as Newman performs “Wandering Boy” alone at the piano.
The song’s haplessness reveals itself at once as a father quietly mourns his lost (estranged? dead?) son. “If you see him, tell him everything’s alright,” the character sings with whispery despondency. “Push him toward the light.”
That’s Randy Newman for you. He’s capable of turning politics, faith and history into a carnival. But “Dark Matter” reminds us that life’s most real and devastating losses are always in our own backyards.