Randy Newman - Dark Matter The hangdog songsmith's latest LP swaps the political for the persona

From The Arts Desk

Think of Randy Newman and the image conjured up may be of a lugubrious piano man with a sardonic streak. Or perhaps the composer responsible for countless Pixar soundtracks. But there is more to the bespectacled songsmith than just his witty songs and orchestral themes. There are also his theatrical flourishes. And Dark Matter, Newman's first singer-songwriter LP in a while, starts in just such a cabaret mood

"The Great Debate" takes the form of a discussion, weighing up the pros and cons of science and religion in an eight-minute epic complete with gospel choirs and spoken-words. Although it's thought-provoking and often good fun, British audiences might find the subject matter a little alienating. After all, we don't really "do" public religion over here. Similarly "Brothers", about JFK and his crush on a Cuban singer, seems more of an American thing.

There are no such question marks hanging over the rest of the album. In "Putin", the singer sends up the sometimes bare-chested Russian leader with couplets like, "When he takes his shirt off /Makes me wanna be a lady". It's a right hoot. But the album's best moments are not satirical, they're the tender, slow-drawl songs. "Lost Without You" and "She Chose Me" are sorrowful and heart-warming, while "On the Beach" paints a poignant portrait of a dropout. Fans of obsessive-compulsive TV detective Monk will also be pleased to find a version of its theme song, "It's a Jungle Out There".

Newman's last album of songs was 2008's state-of-the-nation, Harps and Angels. Those who enjoyed it are unlikely to be disappointed with how Dark Matter often swaps the political for the personal. Still, there's one protest song missing. While recording the LP, Newman also wrote a piece about Donald Trump bragging about how the presidential member is bigger than everyone else's. After much deliberation, Newman decided not to include it. Some things, it seems, are too ugly for parody and Dark Matter is, undeniably, too classy - and emotionally satisfying - for Trump.

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