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Randy Newman Takes A Victory Lap On 'Dark Matter'



This is FRESH AIR. Randy Newman's new album "Dark Matter" is his first studio album of new material in nine years. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the album offers a wide variety of the styles Newman's long worked in, from the satirical to the sentimental. Here's Ken's review.


RANDY NEWMAN: (As Mediator) Welcome, welcome, welcome to this great arena. Durham, N.C., the heart of the Research Triangle. We've come to this particular place tonight 'cause we got to look at things from every angle. We need some answers to some complicated questions if we're going to get it right. To that end...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Randy Newman leads off his new album "Dark Matter" with the composition that is very nearly the reason for this album's existence. "The Great Debate" is almost nine minutes long, and it's Newman's critique of faith over reason, of the hostility of discourse that has overtaken much of the country.

As is true of so many Newman compositions, he assumes various roles - a narrator, a scientist, a so-called true believer. The narrator asks the scientist to explain what dark matter is. And when the scientist responds in abstract chatter, the true believer shuts him down with a gospel chorus and a ringing dismissal of Darwin's theory of evolution.


NEWMAN: (Singing, as True Believer) I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus every time. I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus every time. Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I will. I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus. I'll take Jesus every time.

(As Mediator) All right, 1-0. Next song's going to be a hard one. It's about the theory of evolution. And it's about animals, also. So give me someone who knows something about evolution and animals. Who you got?

TUCKER: Finally, Randy Newman himself becomes a character in "The Great Debate" - a cynical manipulator, who, his accuser says, has been setting up straw man arguments all his creative life. It's Newman's way of retroactively addressing the literal-minded critics of his work over the years, those listeners who took offense at his satire of offensive stereotypes in 1977's "Short People" or who failed to hear that Newman was condemning racism when speaking in the voice of racists on his albums "Good Old Boys" and "Sail Away."


NEWMAN: (As True Believer) You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and communist, creates character like you as objects of ridicule. He doesn't believe anything he has you say, nor does he want us to believe anything you say. Makes it easy for him to knock you down, hence a straw man. I, myself, believe in Jesus. I believe in evolution, also. I believe in global warming and in life everlasting. No one can knock me down.

(As Mediator) Oh, we can knock you down, Mister. We can knock your communist friend down, too. Communist - you call me an idiot. We've been knocking people like Mr. Newman down for years and years, like this - page 35, Georgie (ph). Ms. Dorothy (ph), page 35.

(Singing) I know someone is watching me everywhere I go.

TUCKER: Long and languid, "The Great Debate" proceeds through its three distinct movements beautifully orchestrated. One is left feeling nostalgic. If only we were still in such an era of polite debate. The rest of the album "Dark Matter" consists of fresh recordings of songs new and old. When I listen to "She Chose Me," it seemed so familiar. Where had I heard this before?

Then I recalled - Newman wrote it for "Cop Rock," the legendary 1990 TV bomb from "Hill Street Blues" producer Steven Bochco. "Cop Rock" had police officers busting perps and then bursting into song. It was canceled after 11 low-rated episodes, but Newman hung on to this lovely song.


NEWMAN: (Singing) I'm not much to talk to. And I know how I look. What I know about life comes out of a book. But of all the people there are in the world, she chose me. Most of my life...

TUCKER: Newman does a sprightly version of another TV tune, "It's A Jungle Out There," which was used as the theme song for the Tony Shalhoub detective show "Monk." And this song, first released in 2016, has become even more timely. Titled "Putin," it's a very funny tune ridiculing the egotism of the Russian leader.


NEWMAN: (Singing) Putin putting his pants on one leg at a time. Oh, he's just like a regular fellow. He ain't nothing like a regular fellow. Putin putting his hat on, hat size number nine. You're saying Putin's getting big-headed? Putin's head is just fine. He can drive his giant tractor across the Trans-Siberian plane. He can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain. And when he take his shirt off, he drive the ladies crazy. When he take his shirt off, make me want to be a lady. It's the Putin Girls.

TUCKER: At age 73, Randy Newman has earned the right to take the victory lap that is "Dark Matter." Through the combination of his artful cult albums and his Oscar-winning mass audience soundtrack work, he's managed to have it both ways. He's at once a great cynic and a great romantic wrapped in the American flag without any irony at all.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Dark Matter," the new album by Randy Newman. On Monday's show, our brains are wired to avoid the things we fear and to crave pleasure. We'll talk with Robert Wright about the connection between Buddhist mindfulness meditation and what evolutionary psychology tells us about how the mind works. His new book is "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." Wright's also the author of the best-seller "The Moral Animal." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.