Randy Newman at top of his game on new album, 'Dark Matter'

Nearly 50 years into his recording career, singer-songwriter Randy Newman is still at the top of his game on his first studio album of all-new material in nine years.

''Dark Matter'' is a typically engaging mix of topical tunes, quirky characters, history lessons and wry asides. Topics include Russian President Vladimir Putin; President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy; bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson; and another bluesman named Sonny Boy Williamson.

The album opens with ''The Great Debate,'' a hilarious eight-minute examination of the science-religion divide with three voices, and Newman performs them all. It's part Scopes trial and part ''Bohemian Rhapsody,'' unlike any in the Newman canon, and ends with well-deserved applause. Newman believes the structure represents a step forward for him as a songwriter.

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