The latest work from American singer-songwriter and composer Randy Newman is true to its name. Dark Matter - unlike his Oscar- and Grammy-winning songs and scores for wholesome animated films such as the Toy Story, Cars and Monsters Inc. series - is decidedly less family-friendly. The only exception is the song She Chose Me, about a character who finally gets lucky in love. A sweet and touching ballad he first wrote for failed television police musical Cop Rock in 1990, it could well fit into any Disney animated movie.
Newman's 12th solo album is full of his trademark biting wit, storytelling mastery and lively music, wrapping social commentary and satire in tuneful, theatrical pop, embellished with full string sections, choirs and the works.
Songs including album-opener The Great Debate, a discourse on science and religion, are lyrically dense ("We need some answers to some complicated questions if we're going to get it right").
Still, the song is a highly enjoyable listen, as Newman employs multiple voices and changes tempos along with genres, going from orchestral to gospel in eight minutes.
World politics is covered in Putin, an ode to the Russian President ("He can drive his giant tractor across the Trans-Siberian plain/He can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain"), and Brothers, which imagines a conversation between the late United States president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert as they discuss topics, from Cuba to American football team Washington Redskins in the White House.
In the jazzy Sonny Boy, Newman digs up the bizarre but true tale of two pioneer bluesmen, giving voice to Sonny Boy Williamson I as he recounts how Sonny Boy Williamson II went on to greater glory by stealing his music and identity.
It's A Jungle Out There updates a song Newman originally wrote in the early 2000s for detective series Monk and adds more modern concerns about surveillance through mobile devices as well as issues such as police brutality.
The songs can be very vivid when he takes on personal, intimate narratives.
In piano ballad Lost Without You, a tender narrative by a woman whose husband is on his deathbed, and in Wandering Boy, about a father longing for his wayward son, Newman shows that he can nail down complicated family dynamics and turn them into heartbreaking songs.