Writers in the Sky
Randy Newman and Dan Wilson Show Us How It's Done

I’m often asked to name my favorite song. I always name “Wichita Lineman.”

This may seem like a strange choice, but I think it’s a perfect song. I must have first heard it on the radio when I was very young, because I cannot remember a world in which I didn’t know “Wichita Lineman.” Its melody is a glorious, ever-changing thing, capped off by a perfect rising note that still sends chills. It contains one of the most beautiful lines in all of pop music: “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I’ve heard probably 40 different versions of this song, and every time it gets me.

The definitive version of “Wichita Lineman,” of course, belongs to Glen Campbell, who turned it into a hit in 1968. And if that were the only thing Campbell had ever done, he’d still be noteworthy. But of course it isn’t. Campbell’s career spanned more than 50 years and led to an astonishing 80 hits, 29 of them top ten. That’s not even counting his work as a member of Los Angeles session musician collective The Wrecking Crew, with whom he performed on hundreds of the most important songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. (He’s on

And that’s not even mentioning his work in film and television. Campbell was a rare talent – a guitar player’s guitar player with a hit-maker’s charm, able to duck anonymously into work-for-hire one minute and be a charismatic band leader the next. We lost Campbell today after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past seven years, Campbell has been saying a long goodbye, re-recording some of his favorites (including “Wichita Lineman”) and giving us a final album of cover tunes in June called Adios.  It’s truly marvelous stuff, and a reminder of what a powerful performer we’ve lost.

Rest in peace, Glen. And thank you.

* * * * *

Last week Manchester Orchestra released an album that takes place in and around the site of one of my laboratory’s upcoming experiments. This week Randy Newman releases an album called Dark Matter, an album that opens with an eight-minute examination of science and faith. It’s like all of music has decided to be about me.

There’s no one on earth like Randy Newman, and I’m always glad to see a new record from him. They’re appearing about once a decade now, which isn’t nearly frequently enough for me, but he’s 73 years old and his intricate work takes some time to put together. Dark Matter is… well, it’s a Randy Newman album. It’s sharp and biting and definitely not safe. It’s also tender and sad, often in ways you would never expect from a man with his singular voice. And it’s fully orchestrated – these all sound like show tunes from a Broadway in a much more interesting alternate universe.

Newman wastes no time at all on this album, hitting you with “The Great Debate” right up front. Only Newman would write this song – it’s a dramatic piece pitting the world’s scientists against religious leaders in an arena in Durham, North Carolina (which should be a hint as to how this will go). Newman’s ringmaster character demands that science explain dark matter (which it can’t yet), and gives a Ken Ham-style refutation of evolution. His snarky pronouncements are punctuated by bursts of gospel music and dancing. And then it turns meta, with a member of the audience calling out Newman by name for setting up these cynical straw men. When the song Newman is writing turns against him, it’s a wildly thrilling moment, one that says a lot about his view of America.

Dark Matter doesn’t quite get there again – “The Great Debate” is the biggest and broadest statement of this record. But there are other highlights. Oh yes. “Putin” is one of Newman’s all-time greats, a sarcastic anthem for Russia’s bare-chested leader. “He can drive his giant tractor across the Trans-Siberian plain, he can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain…” The Putin girls, there to provide lascivious commentary on Vladimir’s attractiveness and power, are hilarious, as is Newman’s dismissal of them: “Putin hates the Putin girls because he hates vulgarity.”

Elsewhere, Newman takes on the roles of historical figures. “Brothers” is a dialogue between Jack and Bobby Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. “Sonny Boy” imagines the original Sonny Boy Williamson returning as a ghost and seeing the young upstart who stole his name. Television makes a significant mark this time, Newman giving us not only a full version of “It’s a Jungle Out There,” his theme to Monk, but resurrecting “She Chose Me,” a beautiful song he wrote for (yes, really) Stephen Bochco’s Cop Rock.

And amidst all the satire and snark, there is a real beauty to Newman’s work, and he’s never been afraid to let it show. “Lost Without You” is the album’s prettiest song, a raw and real document of a family on the verge of losing its center. It’s devastating. The record ends with its second-prettiest, “Wandering Boy,” a swaying folk song that tells a whole tale about fatherhood in three minutes. Like all of Dark Matter, it’s vintage Randy Newman, a short story in song form. While I’d like one of these short story books more than once every ten years, when we get one, it’s always cause for celebration.

* * * * *

If we’re talking about great songwriters this week – and we are – my list would absolutely include Dan Wilson.

He’s remained pretty much anonymous for most of his career, but chances are you know at least one Dan Wilson song. For nearly 20 years – basically since the breakup of his swell band, Semisonic – Wilson has been the songwriter for the stars, responsible for a remarkably wide range of tunes performed by a remarkably wide range of artists. Just over the last year, he’s written songs for Phantogram, Halsey, Cold War Kids, the Head and the Heart, Sara Watkins, Andrew Bird and Weezer, among others.

Like Jimmy Webb, the man behind “Wichita Lineman,” Wilson has stayed out of the spotlight, only receiving accolades for his myriad songsmithing contributions from those in the know. But his new solo album is designed to remedy that, showcasing Wilson’s versions of songs he wrote or co-wrote for others. It’s called Re-Covered (get it?), and it includes some of the biggest hits Wilson has penned, as well as some interesting deeper cuts.

I’ll admit that I was more interested in the idea behind Re-Covered than the album itself. Wilson’s versions of these songs are all sturdy and enjoyable. I’m especially fond of his take on “All Will Be Well,” a song recorded by the Gabe Dixon Band (and used in a great episode of Parks and Recreation). The horn arrangements are spot on, and Wilson sings this with a delightfully wistful quality. But he’s not quite the singer he needs to be to match the original versions of some of these tunes.

Most notable here, of course, is Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Wilson gamely sings it, and he does a fine job, but come on, he’s no Adele. Others, like “You and I,” recorded by John Legend, and “Not Ready to Make Nice,” popularized by the Dixie Chicks, suffer similar fates. I like these versions fine, but I probably won’t turn to them very often.

Re-Covered does burst to life when Wilson tackles lesser-known tunes. “Landing” was written with his brother Matt for his 1998 solo album, and this re-do is marvelous. Wilson breathes new life into “Your Misfortune,” co-written with Mike Doughty. And I adore this take on “When the Stars Come Out,” originally performed by country darling Chris Stapleton. Wilson caps things off with a new take on “Closing Time,” Semisonic’s biggest hit, reminding everyone listening that yes, he wrote that one too.

I don’t want to be hard on Re-Covered. I like it fine. It certainly accomplishes its main purpose – connecting Dan Wilson’s name to all of these terrific songs he’s written. If this opens some people’s eyes to his wide-ranging, below-the-surface talent, I’m all for it.

* * * * *

Next week, Kesha’s comeback. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.