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September 21, 2017

Randy Newman needles Putin with new album, 'Dark Matter'

'I set out to write that song because I was trying to understand that whole shirt-off thing,' he says

Singers Musicians
Randy Newman Pamela Springsteen/for PhillyVoice

Randy Newman appears Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside.

Despite composing winning film scores for children’s films – the “Toy Story” movie series, 2013’s “Monsters University” and 2017’s “Cars 3” – no one would confuse that nice Randy Newman with the mean Newman behind his caustic new album, “Dark Matters.” His first “conventional” pop record since 2008 – and a tour that brings him to Glenside’s Keswick Theatre this Sunday – signals the differences between placing himself in a storyline for kids’ film music versus the lacerating “Dark Matters” dialogues. Having characters interact as they do on the JFK-RFK driven “Brothers” (the Kennedys plot the Bay of Pigs Invasion here) or a family’s chatter on "Wandering Boy," is new for Newman.

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“When I’m working for a picture – any picture – there are usually many instructions to go with them,” said Newman. 

“I get as many adjectives from the directors and producers as I can. There are the usual requests for fast, slow, rock, not rock, and I go from there. Plus, I want to see what’s up on the screen. With my own album, I’m free to do what I want – I’m on my own – but having a narrative with two voices thing is new for me. You’re right there. I wasn’t sure it would work. I’m still not sure, though I think that it does. I mean, I‘m satisfied. I did it as well as I can do it. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not.”

NonePamela Springsteen /for PhillyVoice

Randy Newman today.

It is a very good idea, one far different than the usual sarcastic Newman taunt of yore, where it’s one (loudmouth) man against the system, whether it’s the bigot of “Rednecks” or the religious zealot of “If We Didn't Have Jesus." In this composer’s mind, he usually writes himself and his narrative viewpoint out of each song he makes. Not true on “Dark Matter,” though. 

“I really just wanted to push myself a bit, and do something new,” he said. 

“That’s why I have the intrusion of myself in there, the very mention of ‘Randy Newman.’ That’s something that I never thought I would do. On a song like 'The Great Debate,' this ‘me’ is on the same side that the audience is on. You said it – I’ve put myself in characters a thousand times before, and I’ll do it a thousand times more If I last long enough. I just thought to myself that this one time…”

Then there is “Dark Matters”’ now-famous and funny single, “Putin.” Just as he viewed the second President Bush in 2008’s “In Defense of Our Country,” or even the Kennedy Dynasty in “Brothers,” Newman doesn’t traffic in directly political songwriting. However, something gripped Newman when it comes to Donald Trump’s rumored buddy and the sibling squires of the Camelot Era.

“What interested me about the Kennedy thing is the image of the big brother teasing the little brother,” said Newman. 

“I wanted to – by exaggeration – trivialize what some of the reasons may have been that they invaded another country. Once I was in, I was in...Fairly quickly, I knew that I was going to the White House. With 'Brothers' it was mainly the story of the older and the younger sibling making fun of each other. With 'Putin' though, I set out to write that song because I was trying to understand that whole shirt-off thing. I mean, he’s the most powerful man in the world as well as being, very probably, the richest man in the world. It also seems, to me, as if he has to be Tom Cruise as well, the handsomest man in the world, too. I mean, why else would he keep taking pictures of himself with his bare chest all puffed out?”

Randy Newman appears Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, Pa. Tickets are $49.50 - $79.50. Show time is 7 p.m., nightly. For more information, call 215-572-7650 or click here.