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Inherent Vice

By Charlie Brigden

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Like many soundtracks, Inherent Vice features Jonny Greenwood’s score amalgamated with songs. And while the other tracks give us a good feel of the time period – the film is set at the cusp of the 1970’s – the score sounds like it’s from an earlier decade, and has a potency unmatched by its vocal companions. And it’s truly brilliant.

To me, Greenwood’s music recalls much more of a similarity to the 1940s thriller genre and film noir. There is real wonder and beauty here, and perhaps more melody than his previous efforts (although they were no less great for that). But something else lies under the surface, something insidious, something unsavoury. It’s this feeling that undercuts the score, and which provides an extra layer of depth to what itself is a suite of incredible music. It’s worth mentioning that I am reviewing the score first and foremost; I will talk about the soundtrack as a whole later, but this is primarily an appraisal of Greenwood’s music only.

What immediately stands out with Inherent Vice is Greenwood’s ability to shapeshift while still retaining his style and form. I’m going to use a term I kind of hate – Herrmannesque – but it’s truly what some of this feels like. Greenwood actually feels like he’s gone out his comfort zone to some of those older scores but not to mimic, to inspire. And it doesn’t come across like his previous scores, where there’s been an immediate sense of unease. For example, at points The Master was genuinely uncomfortable to listen to. Inherent Vice, while certainly containing darker elements, is inherently more classical in the Hollywood mode, although the elements under the skin allow for a satisfying discovery when the layers are peeled back.

Inherent Vice begins in a mysterious yet tender mode. The American equilibrium – you can almost see the clapperboard houses and picket fences. The big hills of San Francisco. But as the strings and woodwind flourish, it fades with just a hint of shadow. ‘Meeting Crocker Fenway’ further reaches into the mystery box, with the strings feeling like we’re being told everything and nothing all at the same time. A cello line peters out like water down a drain, inflecting but not signalling. ‘Spooks’ is an interesting artefact; it’s an instrumental originally performed by Radiohead on tour that was rewritten by Greenwood (and performed by two members of the band Supergrass) with a southern feel, atmospheric with a driving bass line and narration from Joanna Newsom. While it has a different form, it fits in with the rest of the score nicely.

Interestingly, there are a trifecta of cues that help structure the score: opening track ‘Shasta’, track six ‘Shasta Fay’, and the penultimate ‘Shasta Fay Hepworth’. The titles give a clue to their relation and development, and the trio are among the best tracks on the album, revolving around a four-note motif that’s both delicate and slightly dangerous. Threat is certainly apparent in the score, notably in ‘The Chryskylodon Institute’ which uses the Herrmann strings with dulcimer to create a surreal but tense feel. ‘Adrian Prussia’ provides what sounds like a chase sequence with electric guitar, while the narration returns in ‘Under The Paving-Stones, The Beach!’ with a surf guitar feel and some brilliant percussion, Newsom’s aggressive dialogue giving the track a disquieting air which is somewhat dispelled by the wonderfully melodic guitar.

‘The Golden Fang’ uses acoustic guitar as a reflective tool, with the instrument periodically embellished by strings to create menace, while ‘Amethyst’ goes the opposite way with harmonica and slide guitar creating the most upbeat cue on the album. The climax comes with ‘Shasta Fay Hepworth’, turning the four-note motif into something a little more hopeful. That said, a sense of bleakess really undercuts any feel of a proper resolution although romantic types will be heartened by the fact that the music itself is so beautiful it’s perhaps lost in the moment. The shadows, if you will.

As mentioned earlier, Greenwood’s score is slatted between songs from the era of the film and earlier. The songs actually work really well with the score, with Can’s ‘Vitamin C’, Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Les Fleur’, and Neil Young’s ‘Journey Through The Past’ being particular standouts. While the score works perfectly well by itself (and for the purpose of this review I burned it on its own to a CD), I’ll happily listen to the album in full as it’s a fine assembly.

As a fan of Jonny Greenwood’s previous work, I’ll say Inherent Vice is his best to date. It certainly has a sense of appeal to me in its classical Hollywood ways, but really it’s an astounding piece of work. The songs on the album combine well with the score, but really it’s Greenwood who is the main attraction, his work with Paul Thomas Anderson being the latest in a long line of composer/director partnerships. Inherent Vice confirms them as one of the best.

Inherent Vice is out now from Nonesuch Records

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