In Brief: In which I fall in love with the soundtrack to an obscure Danish film that I’ve never even seen.
And now for something completely different… a review of a film soundtrack. I can’t recall when was the last time I did one of these, if ever. Sure, I’ve reviewed a lame movie tie-in project or two, but pop songs written with only some vague connection to a movie’s plot, or even worse, pre-existing material repurposed to market a film, are not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the actual songs and incidental music heard in a film. Normally this isn’t the sort of thing that I can really get into. Even if I loved a movie and found its score to be incredibly moving (anything that Michael Giacchino has done for Pixar or for the TV series LOST, for example), listening to the score on its own doesn’t generally have the same effect. When a film’s actual soundtrack is heavy on pop songs, it tends to be either a compilation (particularly if the film has a retro setting) or maybe they hired an artist to write new songs in their own style in a way that would fit the mood of the film. The latter was the case for Skyscraper, a Danish dramedy released last year that I’m almost certain none of you have heard of, let alone seen. I haven’t seen it, either. But when I found out that Jonas Bjerre, lead singer of the band Mew, had composed and performed the entirety of its soundtrack, I just had to hear the results. Mew managed to get my attention a few years back with a string of incredibly dreamy indie rock albums, and I wondered how their vocalist would fare on his own, apart from the rockier elements that give the band its progressive, melancholy edge. As it turns out, he did a darn good job, creating an album that is a delightful listening experience in and of itself, even with no knowledge of the film it supports. Its peaceful yet vibrant musical landscapes, which split the difference almost equally between fully fleshed-out songs and brief, ambient vignettes, are the sort of thing that a music geek in a contemplative mood could easily use as the basis for an entire film that he makes up in his own head.
Now I should note that though I haven’t seen Skyscraper, it isn’t for lack of trying. Far as I can tell, the film hasn’t been released in North America yet. A search on Netflix turns up nothing. Even an attempt to Google reviews of the film came up short. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising for a foreign-language film, but with all of the cinema festivals and earnest bloggers looking for the next indie sleeper hit these days, you’d think I’d have found something. I did manage to stumble across a trailer with English subtitles, and from what I’ve gathered, its plot falls somewhere between one of those slice-of-life indie flicks taking place in a small quirky town, and the Danish version of American Pie. (I guess that would be Danish Pie? Or perhaps American Danish? Suddenly I’m getting hungry.) Part of me actually wonders if the coming-of-age story, in which a young man who hasn’t yet done the deed falls in love with a blind girl, might actually serve to taint my appreciation of the soundtrack, which has English lyrics that I can clearly understand, but which doesn’t seem bawdy or even remotely sexual in nature. It could easily be the soundtrack to someone falling in love, and several references to the characters and setting due seem to crop up amidst Bjerre’s esoteric lyrics at times, but I have to wonder if he was aiming for something more highbrow than the screenwriters were. I guess I’m better off just letting my imagination fill in the gaps here – good music tells a story all its own, anyway.
Fans of Mew will probably find a lot to appreciate about this soundtrack, at least if their favorite elements of the band are Jonas’s chirpy, androgynous voice and the more ethereal aspects of their song arrangements. Some of these tracks are guitar-based (though I wouldn’t call any of it “rock” by a long shot), and some of them are quite rhythmic (in more of an electronic sense), so if you’re looking for the stadium-sized riffs that got you hooked on songs like “Am I Wry? No” or “The Zookeeper’s Boy”, you might be disappointed. The multitude of colorful instrumental sounds that made No More Stories… such a delight to listen to comes further into the forefront here, though the seamless flow of the album has quite a bit in common with And the Glass Handed Kites (it just isn’t anywhere near as dark as that album). Not having a physical copy of this soundtrack in front of me, I honestly don’t know whether Bjerre painstakingly assembled most of these arrangements in the studio himself, or whether he brought in a bunch of hired-gun players to bring his widescreen visions to life. I just know that the results are both atypical (no weepy Hollywood string arrangements here) and magical. The warm, daydreamy feeling you might get from a lot of these tracks could remind you of Sigur Rós at times (it’s a Scandinavian thing, I guess), and yet the artistic approach is quite the opposite at times – instead of taking one or two motifs and slowly exploring them over the course of six minutes or more, these 18 tracks move gently but briskly through a smorgasbord of musical ideas. Occasionally that means that a sequence of teeny-tiny tracks stuffed in between the actual songs fails to fully register until you’ve listened through several times, but even if you lose your place, it’s a gorgeous experience. Consider this one an unlikely belated candidate for my “Best Albums of 2011” list, because I went in with no idea what to expect from it, and it truly caught me by surprise.
A simple but lovely piano melody leads off the soundtrack. It sounds more like an upright piano than a grand, which means that instead of having the pretense of leading off something huge and epic, it’s more down-to-earth, more localized, more humble. Like someone just walked into their living room early on a Sunday morning and started playing for no audience in particular. The melody has the sort of subtle crescendo to it that makes it feel like this could be the opening or closing theme to a film – we’ll revisit that idea later.
2. Waste It
The first full song is one of the most attention-grabbing things on the album, with its riff made up of harmonic notes plucked on a guitar, and the keyboards and synths that slowly come fluttering in to fill in all of the gaps. Musically, it feels like you’re staring at some sort of a precious jewel, admiring it from all angles… and then, like a lot of the best Mew songs do, it suddenly changes its appearance on you, shifting to more of a syncopated rhythm as this chapter of the story hits its climax. Strangely, it seems to be a rather late chapter in the story, as a boy tries to put his brave face on and say goodbye to the girl next door he’s fallen in love with who now has to get on with her life. Neither of them seems to want to part ways, but it’s inevitable, and so he’s resolved to at least not waste the last few moments that they have together. My best guess here is that the film opens in medias res and then goes back in time to explain the events leading up to this bittersweet moment. But understanding all of that (or even being able to formulate a good guess) is really secondary; it’s an exquisite song to listen to even if you tune out the lyrics altogether. Not long after that unexpected shift in the rhythm and a final verse that casts a bit of a shadow on their farewell as he sighs “So then, you lied to me”, a cold wind abruptly cuts into the song and segues into the next track.
3. The Story of a Would-Be Traffic Light
At about five minutes, this is probably the most complex and involved track on the album. I can only guess that it goes with a key scene or plot point in the film, since I know there’s something in it about a traffic light in the center of a small town, and the film’s protagonist is somehow blamed when it malfunctions. Mew fans will probably find a lot to appreciate here, as it goes through several distinct sections that somehow flow smoothly into one another, starting with the twinkling bells and piano that create a Christmas-y sort of feel at the beginning, then bringing in the big, echoing, snare drums, then dropping those and leaving the tranquil piano by itself, only to marry that to a stuttering electronic beat, only to finally bring it altogether for a bouncy coda in which the light keeps changing from green to red and back again. Since the line “And it’s a long way down from your skyscraper” is repeated in the song’s midsection, I can only assume that the corresponding scene somehow explains what skyscrapers have to do with a tiny town in rural Denmark. It’s easy to imagine an imposing metropolitan setting, with all sorts of glaring lights beaming down on our two protagonists, as they turn corners and get bombarded with new and intimidating sights as they try to navigate the place. The song just encapsulates that sense of sheer wonder that someone with a rural upbringing might feel upon their first visit to “the big city”.
4. Kids Don’t Fight
The cheesy, almost childlike tone of the synthesizer here gives me this weird image of fluffy pink clouds and unicorns and stuff. It’s pretty clearly meant to evoke a flashback to childhood, though since Bjerre can’t help but write melodies that make even grown men swoon, there’s still a winning quality to it. (Mew’s “Cartoons and Macramé Wounds” isn’t a terrible comparison, though this brief song doesn’t scale the same epic heights.) I know that the main character Jon has a brother Ben who is a supporting character in the film, so I can only assume that this song is about their parents trying to keep the peace between the two of them. The lyrics seems to suggest some sort of abandonment issues that arose from this incident, since the song open with “Going, going into the night light swimming site/Knowing they’ll never leave you”, and later offers the rather un-reassuring explanation: “Lemonade says I care/We love this one, don’t we?/Throw money after it.” The song sounds so sweet and cuddly that this is easy to miss.
This minute long interlude is just Jonas’s voice wandering after a piano melody that seems to be in a sort of slow freefall. A marimba or some sort of wooden mallet instrument joins in near the end, giving it a “seaside” sort of mood.
6. Fireflies in Central Park
An interlude after an interlude? This album has a few of those. This one’s all warm, ambient keyboard tones, presumably to capture the still splendor of nature trying to reclaim people’s attention from the bustling city all around it.
7. Until Tomorrow Finds You
This is the album’s longest track, beating out “The Story of a Would-Be Traffic Light” by mere seconds. It’s comparatively more straightforward, gliding in on a gentle melody of piano and what sounds like it could be slide guitar, but then bringing in a heavily distorted electric guitar for the refrain (which isn’t particularly loud – it’s just there to add a bit of grit and gravel to the otherwise crystal-clear sound). The lyrics seem to be about an older couple who have grown so accustomed to each other that they communicate only in small, insignificant details – she’s lost her shoe, he just wants to sit alone in his old chair and read his newspaper. The younger couple is looking on, perhaps repulsed by their lack of interest in each other, and this song is like their vow to always cherish each other – “If I can discover her sight, I’ll never leave her blind”.
8. Picking Up All the Oranges
We’ve got four instrumental tracks in a row coming up here – I can’t say that they’re anything less than pretty, but this is the point where the album suffers a bit due to how easy it is to lose your place and how the tracks don’t stand out as well on their own. The first of these tracks is a pretty little classical guitar melody that has a slight “old world” feel to it. I would love for it to build into something more, but it’s done in sixty seconds flat.
At first this sounds like another short piece played on the same piano as “Colours”. It’s kinda pretty, but nothing special. Then Jonas begins to sing over it, no lyrics but just a bunch of angelic “Aah”s, and suddenly OMG IT IS THE MOST GORGEOUS THING EVER. I exaggerate slightly, but it was really infuriating me trying to go back later and figure out which of these tracks it was that had gotten so pleasantly lodged in my brain. I guess this is the leitmotif for the film’s primary female character. It sounds about like what having a schoolboy crush feels like.
10. Like Something Out of a Dream
Another thirty seconds of pure ambiance – nothing particularly bothersome about it, but it was kind of unnecessary to make this its own track.
11. Ben & Jon
Plucked strings, perhaps those of a harp, ring out across a wintry landscape. Then Celtic instrumentation joins in and suddenly it’s the most joyous romp on the entire album. I get a mental image of two young children playing in the snow, and this is one of the album’s most compelling compositions… during the fleeting minute and a half that it lasts until it makes a smooth transition into the cool keyboard rhythms of the next song.
I’m almost tempted to view this song (why yes, it is a song) and “Ben & Jon” as a single composition. They’re totally different in their texture and mood, but the rhythmic continuity between them suggests an intended link. The bouncy feeling of the previous track is subtly maintained in the patterns of six that dominate the song – six measures of 6/8 time between each chord change. At least for the verse. The chorus, or bridge, or whatever you want to call it, keeps the syncopation but brings in drum programming, giving the song a jolt much like the one experienced midway through “Traffic Light”. There’s a carefree nature to it, as if those two kids making snow angels are fleeing together from some sort of future or fate that has been dictated to them. One is encouraging the other, “We’ll make it okay if we just keep running”, and at the end of it there’s a brief snippet of children giggling.
13. Spill the Beans
A similarly bouncy pace continues as that familiar piano sound once again leads the way, this time in service of a full song rather than just an instrumental snippet. It’s funny, because the mood is upbeat and it almost has the feeling of entering into some sort of grand formal event, but there’s never a rhythm that kicks in or really any other instrumental support aside from Jonas doing his own background vocals and a fair amount of reverb applied to everything. Here our protagonist keeps repeating the question, “How do we tell them they lost their way?”, and he’s facing up to some sort of a dream or fantasy he had, struggling over whether to confess to everyone that it wasn’t real.
14. In a Small Town
The longest of what I like to call the “pure ambient interludes” on the album, this one runs for a minute and a half and it’s another vague tone poem in the vein of “Fireflies” and “Like Something Out of a Dream”. I think there’s a rainstick or something in this one. There’s little else to distinguish it, and while it might sound breathtaking with the visual of a snowed-in small town or something to accompany it, it doesn’t mean much to me on its own.
15. There’s a Cloud in My Brain
The melody to this one feels distinctly familiar… it took me a few listens to realize that the piano and slide guitar were potentially making a call back to “Until Tomorrow Finds You”. Here, the overall mood is much poppier – it might be the one full-length song on the soundtrack that maintains the same rhythm and intensity throughout, as the snappy drum programming and a few handclaps bring to mind the upbeat choral segment of Mew’s “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy”. This creates a bit of dissonance with the lyrics, which seem to follow on from “Spill the Beans” and find our character admitting to some sort of mental breakdown. He’s a little clearer on the fact that he’s deluded himself, but he’s trying to hang on to the memory of the blind girl who won his affections all the same, even though she’s been taken away from him or perhaps she never existed at all.
16. Squirrel Made Safe
This one really doesn’t make sense to me. What few words there are get mushed together in a blur of backwards and forwards, much like Mew’s “New Terrain”, and after about a minute of this there’s a brief piano interlude reaching for a starry climax. It doesn’t work, but it’s less than two minutes long, so it’s not enough of an interruption to really hurt the album.
17. Jon’s Windowpane Daydream
What I’m presuming is the end of the story is told in this song, which finds our protagonist staring forlornly out a window, imagining the good times he once had with his lover, and wondering whether it’s better when all is said and done to just hang on to the fantasy. He feels the pressure to accept the reality being presented to him now, but finds it difficult: “It’s hard to be one of them when you’re like me, my sultry princess.” While subdued – there’s little here other than a wandering piano melody that ends on an unresolved note, and it’s entire galaxies away from the humongous crescendos that Mew likes to end albums with – there’s a bittersweetness to it that really resonates once you take time to really pay attention to the lyrics.
18. Colours (Slide Version)
I was being quite literal when I said that the opening piece could either begin or end the film. It likely does both. Presented here in its alternate version, the primary instrument is (of course) the slide guitar, playing the exact same melody we heard on piano at the opening of the album. Given the lyrical turn that the last few songs have taken, it’s easy to interpret this as a sort of willful return to the bliss of childhood and young love experienced earlier in the story. It’s interesting how the same tune can mean two very different things once new information has been imparted to the audience. It makes the piano seem cheerful and hopeful, while the slide version seems almost mournful, and yet it’s a peaceful way to bring this entire story that I’ve reconstructed in my mind’s eye to a close.
Who knows, maybe the trailer was just highlighting some of the comedic elements of the film and there is a much more heartwarming (or heartbreaking) story to be told once you look past how the film was marketed. Maybe it’ll be worth checking out if we here in the States ever get an export of the film. Even if that never happens, I’m content to live with the plot I’ve almost completely made up for it, which has the same effect as listening to a Mew album, in that it leaves you with such a romanticized sense of sadness that it makes you happy in its own weird way.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Waste It $2
The Story of a Would-Be Traffic Light $2
Kids Don’t Fight $1
Fireflies in Central Park $0
Until Tomorrow Finds You $1.25
Picking Up All the Oranges $.25
Like Something Out of a Dream $0
Ben & Jon $1
Spill the Beans $1
In a Small Town $0
There’s a Cloud in My Brain $1.50
Squirrel Made Safe $0
Jon’s Windowpane Daydream $1
Colours (Slide Version) $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.