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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: Bodysong


1) Moon Trills; 2) Moon Mall; 3) Trench; 4) Iron Swallow; 5) Clockwork Tin Soldiers; 6) Convergence; 7) Nudnik Headache; 8) Peartree; 9) Splitter; 10) Bode Radio / Glass Light / Broken; 11) 24 Hour Charleston; 12) Milky Drops From Heaven; 13) Tehellet.

General verdict: A highly diverse and knowledgeable soundtrack, but not exactly a source of major excitement.

Say you are one of those people who likes Radiohead, or would like to like Radiohead, but happen to think that Thom Yorke is one of the most obnoxious singers on this planet, and how much more cool Radiohead would be if it had a different vocalist, or maybe even no vocalist at all. If so, could this be a remedy — Jonny Greenwood's body of movie soundtracks, which pretty much works as the substitute for his solo career? After all, Jonny is the musical genius behind Radiohead, or so it is typically assumed, and it is clear that he does so many soundtracks not in order to make a quick extra buck or because he has a secret affair with Paul Thomas Anderson, but simply because this gives him a chance to run a few of his ideas past band control without straining any of his relationships with the other members of Radiohead.

Most importantly, the soundtracks actually work on their own. This first try, for instance, was used in the art-doc movie Bodysong, directed by Simon Pummell and, according to Wikipedia, telling «the story of an archetypal human life using images taken from all around the world and the last 100 years of cinema» — one of those projects that typically commend gushing admiration from The Serious Art Lover, venomous cynicism from The Bullshit Hound Critic, and utmost indifference from 99.99% of the total population of the planet. I have not seen it, so count me within the 99.99% for now, but I did hear the soundtrack and I confirm that the soundtrack can be listened to, enjoyed, and assimilated without any visual accompaniments — or, rather, you can easily make your own visuals up as you go along.

Or not, actually. If you thought Kid A and Amnesiac went all the way to derail Radiohead from the tried and true rock band formula, think again: as a solo artist, Jonny Greenwood cares even less for polished structures, rhythm tracks, and firmly established musical themes. Instead, he goes on to honor as many of his witty influences as possible — starting with modern classical idols such as Messiaen and Penderecki, going on to Coltrane and Miles Davis, and ending with all sorts of electronic wizards. To that effect, The Emperor Quartet has been called on to provide chamber backing, some important brass players have been called on to provide jazz backing, and Jonny himself plays a lot of Ondes Martenot to keep us firmly in the digital age.

It's all cool, and Greenwood's compositional skills are nothing to laugh about — I have no idea what Messiaen himself would have said about tracks like ʽTehelletʼ or ʽIron Swallowʼ, but they have a fairly serious feel, and I have certainly heard plenty of neo-classical pieces that were much more boring, despite being strictly academic. Above everything else, the soundtrack is really and truly startingly diverse. Its classical pieces can be minimalistic (ʽMoon Trillsʼ), neo-romantic (ʽGlass Lightʼ), or epic (ʽTehelletʼ). Its electronic passages may be glitchy (ʽTrenchʼ), trip-hoppy (ʽClockwork Tin Soldiersʼ), or just wobbly-psychedelic (ʽMoon Mallʼ). ʽMilky Drops From Heavenʼ is avantgarde jazz that sometimes devolves into murky cacophony. ʽConvergenceʼ is four minutes of wild tribal percussion, while ʽ24 Hour Charlestonʼ is banjo-led swamp music pep­pered with electronic bleeps that make Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot marriages of the past and the future seem like childplay in comparison. Quite literally, this is the work of a single guy who seems wildly pleased about letting completely loose, for the first time in his life — taking the time to cram all of his passions into a single package.

However, the main problem with Bodysong is not that it is a soundtrack, but that, for all of its endless pool of ideas, it is still underwhelming. Listening to it actually helps me understand why I do not care all that much for post-Kid A Radiohead a bit better — Greenwood may be a musical prodigy and a musical wizard, not to mention a brave conqueror of new frontiers, blah blah blah, but he just isn't a musical genius. Most of these melodies are technically admirable, but I'd be hard pressed to name one which would amount to more than pleasant / respectable / mildly intri­guing background music. Whatever moods these pieces are supposed to convey, they do not convey them with sufficient passion — it is more like a quietly percolating kettle.

See ʽMoon Trillsʼ, the opening piece. It is nicely atmospheric; a quiet, stable, simple piano line as the anchor, and lots of tinkling keyboard starlets, string gusts, and Ondes Martenot whisps whizzing around it. But it is basically just a chunk of ambience, and it never gets the chance to grow into something more significant. I mean, if this were a Steve Reich piece, it would probably go on for 15 minutes instead of 5, and would have ended in some place that would be vastly distant from the beginning — even if we'd never notice that while listening. If this were a Brian Eno piece, it might have been even more stripped down, but the simple piano line would be louder, stronger, and more meaningful and emotional. But this is Jonny Greenwood, and all I can say is... the man gets his job done, and then switches to the next one.

Every other track, be it electronic, classical, jazz, or maniacal tribal percussion, likewise, feels like a job well done and nothing more. For each of these experiments, you can name a dozen people who did something like this earlier and better — their saving grace is that few, if any, people did them all at the same time and in one place. Just quickly skimming over the tracks once more doubles my respect for Greenwood — but not my heartfelt admiration for the music that he is producing. All of a sudden, I begin to miss Thom Yorke... and all of a sudden, I begin to suspect that you can either write great rock guitar riffs or the Turangalîla, but that nobody can do both with the same level of naturally coming greatness.

Returning to the movie, there is a quote from Paul Thomas Anderson about it, describing the experience as «a moving, scary and hypnotic potpourri of images». Perhaps that might be true about the visual aspects (I cannot say anything here), but Greenwood's music, as presented here, is quite far from scary, and only tiny bits of the score demand to be described as «moving» or «hypnotic» (ʽMoon Trillsʼ, despite all its shortcomings, is probably the best of those anyway). Classy, yes; intriguing, yes; definitely worth taking into consideration for a Radiohead fan, yes. But like so many pieces of 21st century A-R-T, its overall ambitions seem to overwhelm its eventual accomplishments. Perhaps if the album weren't labeled Bodysong, but rather went under a title like Purification Music For Your Living Room, the effect would be more adequate.


  1. Why did you decide to review Bodysong and not to review Music From The Body, the first Roger Waters solo album (1970)? Both are soundtracks.

    1. He's already ditched alphabetical order; anything's possible now.

    2. He mentioned he thinks Music From The Body is more of a Ron Geesin album.