Given Randy Newman’s penchant for puncturing American mores with deftly drawn ambivalence, you might expect that his first album of new material in nine years would take aim at its first citizen.
He did apparently write a Trumpian ode, comparing the sizes of their respective penises, but left it off the album because he “just didn’t want to add to the problem of how ugly the conversation we’re all having is”.
But Newman, 73 and still sharp as a razor, has plenty of other pleasures, both humorous and heart-rending, on this nine-track collection that leans heavily on the grey experience. The title is taken from the opening track, The Great Debate, an eight-minute epic that features a theatrical exchange between "scientists" and "true believers". The cumbersome concept is softened by gorgeous gospel choruses.
In Brothers, the Kennedys, JFK and Robert, discuss over a bottle of dubious Irish whiskey the pros and cons of invading Cuba. The soundscape is pure American heritage before switching to the Caribbean for the infectious chorus.
Putin is all mock militaristic drama – "he can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain" – before Newman shifts gears to unveil Lost Without You, a love song about ageing that is so raw listening almost seems an intrusion.
The equally affecting She Chose Me also encapsulates the wonder of love, albeit more conventionally. Love also infuses the moving final track, Wandering Boy, in which a father cries out for his absent son.
In between all that Newman raises spirits, as only he can, with Sonny Boy, a jaunty imagining of the late bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson, watching a modern day imitator; It's A Jungle Out There sounds climate change alarm while On the Beach focuses on an ageing surfer.
Granted, the song styles and arrangements are familiar, but Newman’s matter-of-fact voice and his signature piano seem imbued with a renewed energy and intensity on what is most definitely a late career high.