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'Raw, emotional' Randy Newman record cuts deep

Pop Music

Randy Newman, "Dark Matter" (Nonesuch). I have come to love Randy Newman's new record dearly. I didn't originally. I was initially put off by his eight-minute opener "The Great Debate" in which we are introduced by America's most complicated yokel-basher to the way folks in Durham, NC, might debate such subjects as "Dark Matter," "The Theory of Evolution" and "Global Warming."

It all ends with "a little break" of "15, 20, 25 minutes, depending on how the merchandise is moving." In Newman's newest masterfully sardonic portrait gallery, the most savage ironist in American vernacular music gives us the following people: Willie the lifelong surfer he's known since grade school ("You're not a bum Willie/Never a bum Willie/But in years to come Willie/It was in reach"); Jack and Bobby Kennedy planning the Bay of Pigs Invasion because of Jack's love ("in a good way") of Cuban singer Celia Cruz; Vladimir Putin ("I dragged the peasants kicking and screaming into the 21st century....These chicken farmers and file clerks are gonna be the death of me yet."); the original bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson as "the only bluesman in heaven" because he died young before his identity was assumed completely by the man who was born Rice Miller; the theme song to TV's late lamented series "Monk" "It's a Jungle Out There" ("This World You Love So Much Just Might Kill You").

But the killer songs here are the opposite sides of irony's coin--songs so raw and emotional and probably revealing that they're devastating to listen to--"Lost Without You," "She Chose Me" ("The Most Beautiful Girl in All of The World/And She Chose me"), and, especially a stark and emotionally naked rumination on a missing youngest son called "Wandering Boy." ("Where Is My Wandering Boy? If you see him, tell him everything's all right. Push him toward the light.")

A journalist interviewing Newman might ask Randy Newman how his youngest son was. But after listening to this wallop of a song, no ordinary Newman listener would presume to know so much about such an apparently revealed life. After so much revelation, it's probably not our business what is fiction and what might, in fact, be lacerating fact about his youngest son. In the meantime, one of the great Randy Newman records.

4 stars (out of four)


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