Randy Newman at top of his game
Randy Newman's new album includes a song cataloging American carnage titled, "It's a Jungle Out There," which he says he doesn't really believe.
Quite the opposite, in fact. His life is good.
Nearly 50 years into Newman's recording career, he's still widely beloved by the rock 'n' roll generation, even though he never sang rock 'n' roll. To judge from concert crowds, his appeal stretches far beyond his own demographic.
"There are more young people coming out the last couple of years," he says. "I think they range from maybe the late 20s to 105, people my age."
Newman is actually 73, and still at the top of his game on his first studio album of all-new material in nine years. "Dark Matter" is a typically engaging mix of topical tunes, quirky characters, history lessons and wry asides. The funny stuff is counterbalanced by a couple of love ballads, including the sad but beautiful "Lost Without You."
"From the first day of this project, it was obvious he really wanted to push himself," co-producer Mitchell Froom says. "He wanted it to be an audacious body of work."
Topics include President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the bluesmen — plural — Sonny Boy Williamson.
The album opens with "The Great Debate," a wild eight-minute examination of the science-religion divide with three voices, and Newman performs them all. It's part Scopes trial and part "Bohemian Rhapsody," unlike anything in the Newman canon, and ends with well-deserved applause.
"Three different voices is maybe not the best use of the form," he says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "But I couldn't see a way out of it, and I'm satisfied I did the best I could."
The cinematic approach makes sense, given Newman's success as a film composer, and he believes the structure represents a step forward for him as a songwriter. He tries something similar on "Brothers," where President Kennedy and his brother discuss the Bay of Pigs and Celia Cruz, with Newman delivering both sides of the conversation.
Froom says such ambitious songs were possible because of today's tepid music marketplace.
"The way the industry is now — which basically is 99 percent negative — the one thing that's really great is that in this environment, for Randy, doing something really different and pushing the threshold becomes a very good idea," Froom says. "You're not going to be facing a record company that is going to be disappointed or worried they don't have a hit. There was no pressure to conform."
Newman doesn't keep up with music trends anyway. He says can't remember the last pop concert he attended.
He follows current events, however, and one result is the single "Putin," which delights in the Russian leader's screen-idol ambitions. It includes plenty of laugh lines, including a Greek chorus known as the Putin Girls, and a sly dig at Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
Putin might like it.
"When I finished the song, I realized it isn't that critical of him," Newman says. "He doesn't come off that bad. It's like I'm part of the Trump administration."
Newman picked a trendier topic than he could have imagined when he began writing the song at least two years ago, well before Putin and the 2016 U.S. election began appearing in the same sentence.
"And now here we are," Newman says, "with him playing a big part in running our country maybe."
Putin and Kennedy are the only presidents on the album, although Newman says he wrote a song more than a year ago inspired by Donald Trump's comments about the size of his hands. The tune has the singer bragging he's more generously endowed than Trump.
"It ain't lying if it's true," goes one line.
The song didn't make the cut for the album, and Newman wishes he had never disclosed its existence.
"It isn't beautiful. I meant it to be obviously amusing," Newman says with a chuckle. "But I regret ever mentioning it. The vulgarity of it — there's no sense adding to the general vulgarity of the world."
Newman says he hasn't made any other attempts to write about Trump, perhaps because he anticipates the shelf life would be short. Newman strives to avoid writing songs that will lose their currency, mindful the political climate can affect the back catalog.
That happened with his satiric 1972 gem, "Political Science," which proposes nuclear attack as good foreign policy.
"The last time I played 'Political Science' in Europe, they didn't laugh," Newman says.
What would President Trump think of that song?
"He would get it — it just dawned on me," Newman says. "I think the one thing he's good at is mass entertainment. He should have been a TV critic or something. He wouldn't have been a good one, but he's so into that kind of stuff. He might understand that song is not meant to be literal."
Newman plans another album, and says it won't take nine years, but first he'll hit the road for a series of solo dates at the piano. He says he'll likely include several songs from "Dark Matter," although "The Great Debate" is probably too complicated to perform alone.
The song order each night will be fluid.
"I've got a set list and can change it, judging how the audience is," he says. "During ballads, if they're shuffling around or eating potato chips, I won't play many of them."
Overall, he's delighted by the reception he continues to receive.
"The whole thing is enormously gratifying and a privilege," Newman says. "To earn your living this way is amazing to me. If I play a festival and I see people camped out — not necessarily expressly to see me — it's amazing they go through that kind of discomfort."
Like the song says: It's a jungle out there.