Randy Newman Credit: Jesse Grant

By now it’s common knowledge that Randy Newman’s sweet, Pixar-accompanying musical style is a facade for lyrics infused with sardonic, acerbic social commentary—much in the same way that Steely Dan’s gleaming jazz-rock is a veneer for profiles of losers, outcasts, and hucksters. In fact, in his use of American tropes for populist purposes that both celebrate and criticize American life, Newman’s work is more like Mark Twain’s than that of virtually any other modern songwriter. That being said, Newman’s most recent album, Dark Matter (Nonesuch), is relatively gentle, which in context means that the album’s characters and subjects are more pitiable than flat-out despicable. The album’s centerpiece is the opener, “The Great Debate,” which condenses a modern-day Scopes trial into an eight-minute suite that incorporates gospel, classical, and New Orleans jazz. The message is quintessentially Newman: salvation comes not in the form of organized religion but in the healing power of music.   v