Back in 2000, the Coen Brothers hit it big with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was a film that not only transcended their typical audience, but also created a renaissance for bluegrass music with large record sales and a take on Homer's "Odyssey" that captured Americana almost perfectly. In a way, their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a direct sequel in not only chronological order, but a return to the well of crafting an intriguing soundtrack that mixes covers of standards with a few new songs with the help of music composer T. Bone Burnett. What they have come up with is something that is almost too accurate and loving to the 60's folk scene with a stripped down sound and plenty of their oddball sensibilities. What they have created is something that maybe won't capture the world the way that bluegrass, but in a time where folk-type bands are radio friendly, it may just catapult them back to the top.
The story follows Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who is billed as a folk singer with a cat. It is lucky that Isaac's voice manages to work within the genre without overshadowing any aspect. His voice has a twang of pain and the accompaniment of performers, including Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Stark Sands, the music's aura manages to remain consistent. Even the goofier-sounding songs like "Please Mr. Kennedy" manage to feel sincere in the hands of Burnett's production, as the vocal harmonies mix in ways that allow the deep voice to sing back-up vocals in intriguing ways.
Overall, the album's theme deals heavily with this sense of loss. Based on the lyrics, it appears that most of the music is reflective of a man who has broken up with a woman. At various points, he sings about departing and spends an awful lot of time pondering life. With the track "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)," Isaac sings in time with Marcus Mumford and creates a haunting, lovely melody detailing a journey to find the person you love. This results in an almost calming, meditative vibe for the rest of the album.
It is exciting that even if the film will have some formula of comedy, the album doesn't appear to be taken as satire in the vein of Walk Hard. Every note here is sincere. It could largely be due to Burnett's legacy in the country music field. Having won for Best Original Song with "Weary Kind" for the film Crazy Heart, he is a seasoned veteran who knows how to craft a soundtrack that may appear novelty on paper, but comes to life in sincere, vulnerable ways when rhythms are places alongside it. He explores some deeper, mature themes and creates a soundtrack that is consistently entertaining and a great teaser for the upcoming film's release.
Even for those not familiar with folk music, this feels like a solid soundtrack that highlights the best use of it. With covers by Dan Van Ronk and Bob Dylan closing out the album, this goes the extra mile in order to maintain authenticity. The melodies are tight, with an acapella rendition of "Auld Triangle" and an overall sense of pride for historical culture in "Queen Jane," this doesn't just feel like an attempt to explore themes, but create music that would fit right in with the time. The only puzzle now is understanding how it works with the film.
It is highly entertaining and Isaac is quite an intriguing singer, whose voice captures pain and over guitar brings it to life in exciting ways. The rest of the players also have a lot of solid moments throughout. Going above and beyond, Burnett knows how to make genre music, notably that rooted in Americana culture. The only hope now is that it works within the realm of the film and can bring the moments to life in exciting ways.
|Left to right: Isaac and Justin Timberlake|
Upfront, I will admit that my knowledge of folk music isn't as strong as it could be going into reviewing this soundtrack. Upon initial thoughts, I was thinking that songs like "Please Mr. Kennedy" were originals and it only made the music more exciting. While I knew tracks like "Auld Triangle" were traditional, I am not quite keen on all of the songs that were original and covered for the album. As it stands, all of it thematically and tonally seems to fit and T. Bone Burnett has done a great job of compiling a vibe. While it isn't my favorite soundtrack of 2013 (it remains Stoker), it does have a lot of memorable moments and is a nice addition to anyone who enjoys great folk soundtracks.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Rating: 4 out of 5