Yes, Randy Newman has a new album out called Dark Matter, and it’s the great satiric songwriter’s first collection of fresh material released under his own name since 2008’s Harps & Angels.
It’s the reason the pianist and Disney/Pixar movie music composer — who’s been nominated for 20 Oscars and won two — will be playing the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Sunday.
We’ll get to Dark Matter, and its Newmanesque adventures — as in the eight-minute opener, “The Great Debate,” that’s a musical battle between scientific reason and religious faith and “Brothers,” a fictional conversation between Bobby and Jack Kennedy in which the Bay of Pigs invasion is launched to rescue Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
But first, can we first talk about a Randy Newman album that came out 43 years ago that’s frighteningly relevant today?
“Sure,” says the 73-year-old singer and orchestrator, talking on a recent morning before a tour date in Morristown in North Jersey. He’d be happy to chat about Good Old Boys, the 1974 in-character exploration of bigotry — Southern in particular, and American in general — that includes many of his most beautiful, funny, and disturbing songs.
“I think now, I just wouldn’t have done it,” says the songwriter, who grew up a Ray Charles fan in a Jewish family in Los Angeles (with three uncles who were well-known film composers) but who lived with his mother’s family in New Orleans for long periods, an experience that shaped his 1988 album Land of Dreams.
He’s not talking about Good Old Boys as a whole, but “Rednecks,” the song that repeatedly uses the n-word to make its point about the universality of racism, from the Deep South to allegedly more sophisticated and liberal Northern cities.
“The word would disqualify it now,” says the songwriter, who does still occasionally perform the song. “But that song is about the idea that the North assumes some kind of moral superiority in the matter of race relations. I think everyone knows that it’s bad everywhere now.”
Good Old Boys’ four-decade-old songs are almost eerily pertinent in 2017. That’s true of “Louisiana 1927,” about an epic Southern flood, as well as the look back at populist demagoguery of the 1930s in “Every Man a King.” Not to mention “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” in which blue-collar characters sing, “Maybe you’re cheatin’, maybe you’re lyin’, maybe you have lost your mind / Maybe you only think about yourself.”
“It’s funny — people say, ‘Gee, your songs are so prescient about current affairs. But I never would have thought that there would be another populist movement in this country like with Huey P. Long and Father Coughlin in the ’30s, or that this guy” — meaning Donald Trump — “would get elected.”
Newman has been on an album-a-decade diet since the 1980s, a slow pace that annoys him. “Despite the fact that I take so long between these albums, it is what is most important to me, actually.”
At the turn of the millennium, he began filling the gap with three volumes of The Randy Newman Songbook, in which he rerecorded much of his catalog. He was pleased “by the consistency of his writing, and is correct in noting that he’s maintained a high standard, as is evident in Dark Matter songs like the very funny “Putin” and absolutely gorgeous love song to his wife, “She Chose Me.”
“There’s a lot of evidence that people do their best work early in this field,” he says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true with me.”
Why is that? “I care a lot about it. But a lot of people do. I think movies have kept me in shape. Having a deadline, getting out of your songwriting habits. You can’t just be ‘eight bars, eight bars, the bridge, and hook.’ You have to do different things harmonically. When I did two or three movies in a row in the ’90s, I came out of it a better songwriter.”
Randy Newman movie songs tend to be significantly sunnier than, say, “My Life Is Good,” the one about a self-satisfied egoist on 1983’s Trouble in Paradise or the paranoid-and-proud-of-it vision of Dark Matter’s “It’s a Jungle Out There.”
“I write a lot of songs about people that are, let’s say, imperfect,” he says. “It’s always been what’s interested me more.” But though Newman albums are often populated by cretins and creeps, those real SOBs are usually imbued with some level of empathy by their creator. “Everyone’s human,” he says. “I try to get that in my songs. It’s not black and white. It’s not good and evil. People are more complicated than that.”
That complexity is apparent in “The Great Debate,” a multivoiced drama that includes an unreliable moderator named “Randy Newman.”
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says of the song. “It works for longer than anything I’ve ever done, and it’s got a good joke every 30 seconds or so.” His record label, he said, didn’t want the opus to open the album. “But what are you going to do with it? It’s like hiding an elephant.”
The sibling rivalry in “Brothers” was appealing to him, says the songwriter, who has one younger brother, as well as four sons and a daughter. And also because he loves Celia Cruz and could score satirical points about a superpower going to war for a whimsical reason. “I love the idea of it being that trivial, that casual imperialism.”
Newman’s more-ambitious-than-most songs — much of Dark Matter employs a full orchestra, which he conducts — can confuse because it’s often not clear where his narrator is coming from.
“Early on, I tried to write myself out of the songs,” he says. “Maybe that’s not the best use of a personal medium where people like to think that the people who write the songs are feeling what they say they feel.”
He jokes about his lack of commercial appeal.
“Look, I’ve been doing this since I was 16 for a living,” he says. “And I had one hit, in the ‘Life in the Fast Lane,’ ‘Blue Bayou’ sense.”
That would be the widely misunderstood “Short People” in 1977. “You’d think I’d have more fall on me by accident. But when I do what I do, when it’s not on assignment like the Pixar stuff, it’s just not something that all of America is going to embrace.”
“There are these people that America is really going to love. They love Neil Diamond … and Neil Diamond is a really good guy. Maybe they sense that, that decency there. And it’s difficult to sense my decency from the stuff that I write.”
Not that he’d change that, even if he could.
His most popular song among fans, he says, is “Feel Like Home,” which he says he wrote for Bonnie Raitt and which has been covered by many, including Diamond.
“It’s as straight as I get,” the songwriter says. “I just don’t see myself as a heroic romantic figure. I never write those kind of songs when I have a choice. It’s never interested me as much as a song like ‘Davy the Fat Boy‘ or ‘The Great Debate.’ But I’m glad that I have written some of them for somebody else. It’s as close as I get to writing music that people will like.”
7 p.m. Sunday, Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.
Information: 215-572-7650, keswicktheatre.com