Randy Newman Avenges a Murdered Bluesman on “Dark Matter”

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In the early nineteen-seventies, when the Rolling Stones were at the height of their powers, the American singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist Randy Newman was taking a less conventional approach to rock and roll and the blues. In his music, Newman paired rolling New Orleans piano lines with mordant lyrics to write satirical songs about life, often conjuring narrators—both fictional and real—to help him get his point across. The results were sometimes hilarious, as on the 1971 novelty tune “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” a shambling waltz about failing to find your way around in the sack. But they were also controversial, as with “Short People,” from 1977, a catchy little pop number on which Newman channelled the voice of simple-minded bigots so successfully that he was accused of being one himself.

Newman grew up visiting soundstages in Hollywood; three of his uncles wrote film scores for a living. Later, Newman’s career would also include some significant work for film, most notably his music for Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies. Now, for the first time in nine years, the seventy-three-year-old has made a new addition to his solo catalogue with the release, last week, of “Dark Matter,” his eleventh studio album and perhaps his most topical. There is a song inspired by photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, a song about the differences between science and faith, and another in which the Kennedy brothers discuss the Bay of Pigs. (There was even, in an early version of the album, a song aboutthe size of Donald Trump’s penis.)

The standout, however, is “Sonny Boy,” a languorous jazz tune about the tragic life and death of Sonny Boy Williamson, a successful blues singer-songwriter who was murdered in 1948 after a gig on Chicago’s South Side, and who had his identity and music catalogue stolen posthumously when another artist started performing his songs under his name. In it, Newman imagines the bitter resentment in Sonny’s voice from beyond the grave: “This man stole my name, stole my soul / They’re so holy up there, they don’t understand / But he even tried to steal my jelly roll!” Although Newman surely has very little in common with a dead bluesman from Tennessee, he manages to sound damn convincing.

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