Randy Newman hates writing songs. Hates it. Hates it so much, in fact, that the only reason his 1977 album Little Criminals (which contains “Short People,” the closest thing Newman ever had to a solo hit single) exists is that he “ran out of money” in the years after 1974’s Good Old Boys.
“My friend Lenny Waronker, who produced a lot of my records, used to have to make me work,” Newman says. “I was kicking and screaming and complaining. And it’s ridiculous. I know it sounds ridiculous. It’s going to look ridiculous when you write it. But I’ve always felt that way.”
It’s a shocking statement from someone like Newman, who is by any sane standard one of the best, most versatile songwriters and piano players on the planet. He’s written razor-sharp, satirical, full-album pieces like Sail Away and Good Old Boys, skewering hypocrisy in all its forms with that puckered, sardonic, sour voice. He’s created the scores and written songs for over 20 films, including Toy Story, James & the Giant Peach, A Bug’s Life, and Meet the Parents. And his songs have become hits for other artists, including Three Dog Night (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) and Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”).
So how on Earth can a man who’s an Oscar-winning composer, a subversive satirist, and a reliable hit-maker, all at the same time, hate writing songs?
“Because it’s hard!” he says. “I’m lazy or scared or I don’t know what it is. Despite all the songs I’ve written, I don’t always think I can do it again. I don’t think, ‘This will be fun to write about; let’s examine this.’ I’ve always known what I should be doing is writing songs, but I don’t like to write at all. It requires some self-imposed discipline, because it’s not like record companies want me to make a record these days. I think they pay artists not to make a record sometimes, with the way the business has shrunk. But it’s always been a struggle.”
And indeed, there is a new Randy Newman album out, a remarkable collection called Dark Matter that will make fans of well-crafted songs happy that he decided to get back to work. It’s the first new non-film score work by Newman since 2008’s Harps & Angels, and there’s a remarkable breadth of styles in its nine songs.
The opening track, “The Great Debate,” is an eight-minute, wide-screen epic, moving through different sections like a mini Broadway musical, gathering religious scholars and scientists to debate the big questions of life, including dark matter itself, evolution, and global warning. Midway through, Newman takes himself to task for creating too-easy caricatures of the left and the right, noting that, “The author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, creates characters like you as objects of ridicule; he doesn’t believe anything he has you say.”
It’s one of those great self-critical moments that has always made Newman stand out from his peers: He knows he’s as full of shit as anyone else.
It’s also a trait that has led many critics to refer to Newman’s work as cynical, a tag he disagrees with.
“I’m cynical about things like group behavior, but I don’t think I’m cynical overall,” he says. “Certainly, I believe in the basic decency of the average person, as I’ve seen a lot of it in my life. Everything I do is underpinned by that. And I’m interested in all types of people. I don’t think the world is a shithole, and I never have. Even the shitty people out there are more than just shitty people.”
Also, it’s hard to peg the writer of some other songs on Dark Matter, achingly vulnerable ballads like “Lost Without You” (about the fear of losing the one you love most) and the devastatingly sad “Wandering Boy” (about a child who has drifted out of his parents’ life) as a cynic.
“There’s probably more of me than I think there is in my songs,” he says. “With ‘Lost Without You,’ for example, I imagined what life would be like if my wife died before me.”
There are still other songs on Dark Matter that play with historical events and people, both modern and passed on. “Putin” is a glowering, somewhat self-explanatory profile of a despot, but songs like “Brothers” and “Sonny Boy” are fanciful takes on the Kennedys and the blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, respectively.
“I love the idea of taking history and historical figures and moving them around and doing whatever you want with them,” he says. “Tom Stoppard had this play called Travesties where he did that. Ragtime had Houdini and Teddy Roosevelt meeting. I like having these people do and say things that never happened.”
The album is full of sweeping orchestral arrangements behind Newman’s robust piano and a small collection of studio pros, and it seems obvious that his work in films bled over into Dark Matter.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at orchestral arrangements over the years from doing pictures,” he says. “The more you do something, the better you get.”
Despite that skill with an orchestra, the roots of Dark Matter rest in a more stripped-down project: A two-volume collection called The Randy Newman Songbook, in which Newman revisits his past material in a simple piano-and-vocal setting. Going back over his catalog helped inspire Newman to start writing songs.
“I had to look at every song I’d done when I was looking at what to do for the songbooks,” he says, “and I was gratified that they were pretty good. When I played them live, I didn’t really think about it, but there are songs on my first album that if I wrote them now, I’d be proud of them.”