Given the number of notable deaths lately, writing this column often feels like writing for the obit section, and the past few weeks have led to new temptations: Should I write about the late, great Sam Shepard? Perhaps a tribute to the underappreciated Glen Campbell? Then I remembered Randy Newman was releasing Dark Matter, his first album in nine years, and I figured I’d do something different: honor a great man while he still walks among us.
Millennials only know Newman as the guy who wrote all those Pixar songs. (Note that I’ve refrained from adding an “unfortunately” to that sentence, which would belittle both millennials and those solid entries in the Newman Songbook.) In addition to being the butt of an ongoing Family Guy joke, Newman has been relentlessly mocked by Achievement Hunter, a popular gaming website. As Carl Wilson from Slate has noted, those who tease Newman usually get his mumbled singing voice right and … absolutely nothing else. That’s because they’ve never spent any time with the work Newman created between 1970 and ’74, when he released three monumental LPs (12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys) that just nailed sh*t to the wall.
As much a storyteller as he is a songwriter, Newman sang love songs from the viewpoint of a stalker (“Suzanne”), offered a shut-in’s perspective of an orgy (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) and even spun a strange tale about a girlfriend getting eaten alive by a beach-cleaning machine (“Lucinda”). But his game was truly next-level when he took on race, politics and Americana. “Political Science” is a list of all the places America should bomb (everywhere but Australia, ’cause we “don’t wanna hurt no kangaroo”). Along with Dr. Strangelove, it’s the world’s funniest, scariest take on nuclear war. And no less funny or scary in this age of “fire and fury.”
Newman often sang in the voice of characters, which invited analysis and mass misinterpretation. The title cut of Sail Away starts as a standard pitch of the American Dream (“you’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day”), until it’s clear the narrator’s a slave trader tricking Africans into boarding a ship bound for Charleston Bay.
“Rednecks” is even sneakier: Its chorus (“We’re rednecks and we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground”) leads you to believe Newman is merely poking fun at Southern racists. But he’s actually singing in the voice of a redneck offended by all the sanctimonious, hypocritical Northerners who look down on him. What sounds like a one-note takedown of the little guy is actually a multi-layered exploration on prejudice at large. (Newman says he doesn’t perform “Rednecks” anymore since it uses the N-word eight times, and in an age when even “Walk on the Wild Side” gets branded as transphobic, it’s possible an audience that could appreciate its razor-sharp subtlety no longer exists.)
I’m not quite ready to recommend Dark Matter. It’s a little too theatrical for my taste, and I’m not convinced his skewering of Vladimir Putin is worth your time. Once you’ve nailed the American Paradox to the wall, it becomes difficult to top yourself. And with those classic LPs waiting to be streamed, there’s no reason you shouldn’t let Newman take you back to the early ’70s and teach you everything you need to know about today.