Early in his career, Randy Newman used to regularly puzzle over his lack of commercial success, seemingly unaware that his trademark combination of New Orleans piano and wildly unreliable narrators was hardly a sure path to the Hit Parade. Decades later, Newman has found a side door to fame and wealth as a composer of film scores and likeable theme tunes for Pixar features. As a consequence, the man who created dark masterpieces like 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys is too busy to make the same sort of albums he released when he was a mere cult figure. 2017's Dark Matter comes nine years after 2008's Harps and Angels (which in turn arrived nine years after 1999's Bad Love), but for fans of Newman's work, the consolation prize for his non-prolific nature is that his albums have been free of filler, and Dark Matter ranks with his best work of the '70s and '80s. If anything, Newman has become a more ambitious songwriter than he was in his younger days; there's a scope to his storytelling that's bigger but just as satisfying as his '70s milestones, and years of writing and arranging for an orchestra have taught him how to use the tonal colors of a large ensemble to his advantage without drowning out the nuances. And Newman's endless cynicism and fascination with offbeat characters is served brilliantly on Dark Matter, as science squares off against faith, Sonny Boy Williamson encounters Rice Miller, the Kennedys plot the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Vladimir Putin ponders his land and his power, and a well-meaning beach bum survives the passing parade of history. Even the album's weakest cut, "It's a Jungle Out There," works in context, and the two numbers about the bonds of family, "Lost Without You" and "Wandering Boy," are thoughtful and genuinely moving. And the easy, endlessly reliable stride of Newman's piano remains one of popular music's most underrated pleasures. At his current pace, Randy Newman will be 83 by the time he gets around to releasing the follow-up to Dark Matter, but judging from this, if there's anyone capable of that sort of late-career milestone, it's him.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming