HomePower Beats Club

Randy Newman weighs in on Putin, science vs. religion and more in new ‘Dark Matter’ album

As one of pop’s master satirist-humorists, it’s likely no surprise that for his first studio album in nine years, songwriter/composer Randy Newman has set his artistic crosshairs on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After all, this is the artist who inspired anger and protests with “Short People,” his 1977 sendup of racism. Earlier, in a takedown of duplicitous foreign policy in “Political Science,” he sarcastically suggested that the United States “drop the ‘big one,’ and see what happens.” Then there’s “I Love L.A.,” his paean to his native town that deftly wove in an allusion to this city’s homeless problem.

And now Newman has gone topical again with “Putin,” a centerpiece of his new album, “Dark Matter.”

Due to their relative scarcity, any new work from Randy Newman is an event. Since his 1968 debut, he’s released just 10 studio collections — a rate of about one every four years. That pace has slowed in the last three decades, during which he’s put out just four. Of course, there’s also his composing work, as Newman has scored more than 20 films, including Disney/Pixar’s latest, “Cars 3.”

It adds a layer of richness to the tale, in which scientists debate religious folks over topics such as dark matter, evolution and global warming, all hot-button issues in today’s world of divisive political discourse.

“You start to think, ‘Well, this guy’s got an open mind’ and then he just gets mowed down by the power of the stuff connected with religiosity, with faith, because it’s just mighty,” said Newman, who does indeed consider himself an agnostic, if perhaps not a full-blown atheist.

Newman’s not-so-secret weapon in each of his songs is the music he supplies for the words of his narrators, a wealthy amalgam of pop and classical source material. Here, he taps the blues, gospel, folk, ragtime, chamber and symphonic music, referencing at various points Aaron Copland, Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alban Berg and film composers.

His biggest influence from the latter, he said, would be his uncle, Academy Award-winning Alfred Newman, probably the best known of his three composer-uncles, which also includes Emil and Lionel Newman.

He believes the canvas of pop music doesn’t have to be limited, structurally, thematically or sonically — although albums as creatively expansive as “Dark Matter” don’t often top sales charts.

“You can do it,” he said. “When I first began writing this way, with characters in it, I always wondered why more people didn’t do it. And I think maybe it’s because it’s not a great idea for the medium [of pop music]. Maybe it’s meant to be a direct I-love-you, you-love-me kind of medium.

“But you can do this other stuff and it comes off,” he said. “And I have such an affection for comedy, that I like to laugh and I like to make people laugh, so I do it.”

Some of his songs about the human race are as sharp-edged as any of Mark Twain’s darkest writings — case in point, 1972’s “God’s Song,” in which the Lord tells his image-sharing two-legged creations that, “Man means nothing, he means less to me, than the lowliest cactus flower.”

Yet Newman insists that he’s no misanthrope.

“I’m not cynical about the individual behavior, but I’m shocked by how bad the mass behavior has been politically,” he said. “I don’t think there are 40 million [jerks] in this country. They’re not [jerks]. There are some nice people that voted for this really bad example of an American.”

Yet the album concludes with the heart-rending ballad “Wandering Boy,” which he said was inspired by an 1877 song, “Where Is My Wandering Boy To-Night.” It’s a song he sang at a private memorial last year for Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey.

It’s from the perspective of a parent expressing love and concern for a child who has disappeared, perhaps become homeless, and it reveals the most heartfelt side of Newman’s music.

“It got me too, and it doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “I had trouble playing it for people just after I wrote it. It must be something in my past that it resonates with.”

Meanwhile, his “I Love L.A.” has become especially celebratory this year. The song, cued up after every Dodgers win at Dodger Stadium, has been blaring quite often during the squad’s run for the National League West title.

“To be honest with you, for years I haven’t been a Dodger fan, despite the song,” he said. “I sort of root for the Angels because of Mike Trout.”

But even this skeptic is ready to join the bandwagon.

“What’s not to like? They’ve got a young team, they’ve got a great team. It’s unbelievable. They’re really good.”

[email protected]

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

For Classic Rock coverage, join us on Facebook