Back in 2004 Green Day released American Idiot, an album on which they took the American government of the time to task for the less than wise decisions that were being made.
Wind forward thirteen years, and frankly we need something a little more substantial than a pop-punk power trio to take the current American establishment to task. This time, there’s no space for half measures. We need the big guns. We need someone intelligent, cutting and concise with their words. We need someone to fill the void that has been left while Bob Dylan busies himself with his musical cos-play fantasy about being Frank Sinatra. Right now, we don’t need the voice of his generation. We need the other guy.
Dark Matter is perhaps the best timed Randy Newman album of his lengthy career. While Newman has spent recent decades getting ever more involved in the soundtrack industry, re-visiting old material by way of the bare-bones approach and recording live albums, this has meant that Dark Matter is only his third studio album of original material in thirty years. He really makes it count though, as he takes shots at the Trump Administration, Vladimir Putin, and nationalism in general, with laser-guided accuracy. It’s also one of Newman’s most lyrically-dense works, with opener “The Great Debate” being easily his lengthiest pop song, and also one that reflects the current mess that is national and international politics.
Dark Matter isn’t just about that one song though. “Putin” was released as a single late last year and is a fantastic contemporary example of the type of grotesque character pieces that Newman has been penning throughout his career to great effect, and that he has received regular criticism for by those too hard-of-thinking to realise that he sings many of his songs in character. Elsewhere, there’s the poppy big-band number “It’s a Jungle Out There”, which shows that you can do this type of thing without losing your identity, and an anomalous ballad in the shape of “She Chose Me”, which might have been a complete misfire, but instead serves as blessed relief.
Easily one of Randy Newman’s albums with the strongest sense of purpose about it, Dark Matter pulls no punches, and refuses to talk down to its audience. It’s evident that Newman made the considered choice not to water down his message in order to reach a wider audience. Chart-topping crowd-pleasing a-la American Idiot is passed over in favour of a lyrical approach which underlines that it is society as a whole which needs to take a long hard look at itself for the current mess we all find ourselves in. Yeah, maybe not a popular stance, but an utterly honest one.
Okay, so maybe Dark Matter doesn’t have the tune count that we might expect from Randy Newman, but that’s really not the point of this album. Maybe this isn’t the Randy Newman album we wanted, but it’s the one we need. This is Newman’s state of the world address. And what a bloody state we’re in.