If you’ve not seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend doing so.
Spike Jonze (with some help from Dave Eggers) has pretty much done the impossible in creating a feature length film from what was essentially a picture book with maybe a paragraph’s worth of words. And not just any picture book, at that, but a legendary bedtime story that means countless different things to several generations of kids and parents.
Jonze fought studio execs tooth and nail through multiple delays, insisting he to do it his way, or not at all. This meant among other things, that instead of going the CGI wank-a-thon route (thank god), he hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design the costumes. And, that instead of a nice Hollywood ending where everything is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after, there is residual doubt, ambiguity and a distinct sensation of what the hell did I just watch? His uncompromised final product is absurd, melancholic and beautiful at the same time – similar to the feeling of reflection upon one’s childhood. The soundtrack, conceived of and executed by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, does a splendid job of encapsulating this exotic cocktail of emotions.
To pull it off, O assembled a veritable super-group of indie rockers, appropriately dubbed “The Kids”, which includes her band mates as well as members of The Dead Weather, Folk Implosion, Queens of the Stone Age, Liars, The Raconteurs and Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound).
Though leaning heavily toward folksy art rock, the 40-minute score manages to traverse an impressive sonic range. The largely instrumental pieces cover an assortment of moods and styles: from balmy campfire-sounding sing-alongs to lullaby-soft, music-box melodies. From moments of ecstatic and unadulterated, joyous indulgence to those of poignant, aching sadness.
Barring a few exceptions (most notably, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Worried Shoes), O seems to prefer using her pipes as an instrument for accent rather than a lead in the conventional sense with fully fleshed-out lyrics. Dialogue from the film has been woven in (to great affect) with her minimal vocals in such a way that it can be difficult to discern O’s presence from that of the Max, the story’s protagonist.
Production is spacious – wide open as the imagination of a child. Behind an often deceptively jam-session feel, are rich arrangements of guitar, strings, piano, and synthesizer as well as a host of other instruments which loosely adorn these compositions.
A great example of this intricate roominess is the Arcade Fire-esque Building All is Love, a reprise of the main theme, which is piled high with stings and guitars. Rumpus is all guitars, sythns and plinging xylophone. An up tempo romp with hand claps, tambourines, shakers and backing children’s vocals that give it an irresistible never-neverland feel. A swung, hand-clapped rhythm and sing-songy vocals make Heads Up the catchiest tune on the album. And then there's Lost Fur, a sublimely simple instrumental piece which centers around a piano part and a few acoustic guitar chords. At barely a minute long, this sorrowful interlude is much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s funny, given what I’ve heard of O’s music, never in a thousand years would I have expected her to make an album like this (although given her history with Jonze I suppose she was a fairly obvious choice). I’m just gonna come right out and say that I’m not really a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Beside the fact that I’ve always found O’s yowl to be incredibly grating, to me they’re the embodiment of that insular, nauseatingly self-important New York rock scene of the early aughts. So, I guess it feels kinda good in this instance to have my preconceptions rebuked.