It’s always remarkable when Randy Newman’s work takes a turn toward the sincere and deeply heartfelt. In the popular music canon, few are as skilled at cutting folks down to size with cynicism and rapier wit as the Grammy, Oscar and Emmy winner. Of course this isn’t new. Even before he was soundtracking Buzz and Woody’s adventures with Andy, Newman was capable of delivering such grounded sentimentality whenever he damn well pleased. And he’s known when to parcel it out too. He’ll give you a few chuckles and then make you cry more profoundly than you thought possible.
That’s “Wandering Boy,” Newman’s closing track to his 12th studio Dark Matter. After tales of beach bums who never left and atheists pitted against Pentecostals and Comrade Putin taking the comfy seat for his country, the 73-year old ends with a weepy piano tune centered around a toast at a house party in Los Angeles where Newman’s lived his entire life. It begins with all the formal words and generalities (“Thank you for the party, we’re always glad we came, I’m the only one from the family tonight, but I know they’d say the same”) before delving into the deeply personal.
Newman’s main character recalls his youngest son, the so-called “Little Caboose,” who used to do tricks off the diving board in back of the house at age five. “Laughing like a maniac, shining in the sun like gold, he was afraid of nothin’ then, he was loved by everyone,” the narrator recollects. But it’s all too clear from the soberness in his story that the Sun’s no longer shining on his baby boy. Darkness has descended on the joyful “maniac” and he’s out there somewhere in the world without any family to support him or towel to keep him dry. Maybe one day he’ll return, like the Prodigal Son to his father. Maybe not. The only certainty is that our narrator will keep waiting for him and never stop wondering where he is and hoping that one day he’ll walk through the front door of that house with a party gift and a gleam back in his eye.
Dark Matter is out now and demands your attention.