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Monday, May 28, 2018

Jonny Greenwood: Phantom Thread


1) Phantom Thread; 2) The Hem; 3) Sandalwood; 4) The Tailor Of Fitzrovia; 5) Alma; 6) Boletus Felleus; 7) Phantom Thread II; 8) Catch Hold; 9) Never Cursed; 10) That's As May Be; 11) Phantom Thread III; 12) I'll Follow Tomorrow; 13) House Of Woodcock; 14) Sandalwood II; 15) Barbara Rose; 16) Endless Superstition; 17) Phantom Thread IV; 18) For The Hungry Boy.

General verdict: Greenwood's most ambitious raid on classical territory so far, but still hardly a replacement for your Deutsche Grammophon collection.

Just another Greenwood soundtrack for just another Paul Thomas Anderson movie? Certainly not by the way that the music community at large seems to have responded to it: everywhere you go, Phantom Thread is almost unanimously hailed as Jonny's best soundtrack so far (even if he still lost the Oscar to Alexandre Desplat), and is often ranked as one of the best musical achievements of 2018 (not that this would mean much — but worth a mention at least).

And not without reason. First, the album returns to the format of a cohesive musical suite: despite the relative length, all of the music here is Jonny's exclusively, and works perfectly well outside of the context of the movie (which I have not seen so far... lots of catching up to do on my P. Th. Anderson). Second, the musical scope and instrumental textures of the album are extremely diverse: although the format is classical throughout, the music encompasses a variety of styles, from baroque to romantic to impressionist to avantgarde to minimalism, with Greenwood now seemingly, if moderately, competent and qualified in all of them. Third, it may be the best produced and most sonically rewarding album of his career, though that is certainly the most subjective and intuitive opinion of them all.

I would like to add «fourth, the music is just great», but am somehow stopped in my tracks by the realization that none of the themes stuck long enough in my mind or shook me right down to the bottom — however, once again, that is just me. There is clearly a big difference here: Jonny is definitely stretching out and attempting to paint on an epic scale rather than a local one. The title track alone goes through four different variations, starting out as a small chamber orchestra piece, then reprised as a sonata-for-piano-and-violin movement, then getting the full symphonic treat­ment (brass, timpani, the works), and finally closing out as a solo violin piece — four different aggregation states of the human soul, if you want a pompous metaphor. In the context of the entire history of classical music, ʽPhantom Threadʼ might not be that great a theme: once you get through to the solo violin variation, it comes across as a nice tribute to some single movement of a J. S. Bach violin sonata. But in the context of the album, those four states are legit parts of a musical journey taken by... (I guess this is where one is supposed to fall back on the movie, but we do want to make Jonny Greenwood's allegedly best album to look like a musically self-con­tained piece of art, right?).

The piano-based pieces are delicate and exquisite Glass-ian / Budd-ian pastiches, well framed by chamber strings (ʽThe Hemʼ, ʽSandalwoodʼ); or, vice versa, melancholic excourses into string-based baroque soul with minimalistic piano at the fringes (ʽAlmaʼ). Explicit dissonance is hit very rarely (ʽBarbara Roseʼ is, I think, the most prominent example, with little pizzicato splatterings all around its clumsy bass strut), but there is just enough depth and complexity in the «normal» pieces to avoid sliding down into cheap sentimentality — this is a tasteful stylistic exercise, not a manipu­lative «Hollywood» orchestral puddle.

Still, yet again I reserve any kind of definitive judgement, because, like most of Jonny's sound­tracks, this one, too, feels more like a Greenwood display of humble adoration for the history of classical music up to the late 20th century rather than a meaningful and challenging Greenwood contribution to the history of classical music. This is, I believe, why he saves all of that creativity of his for soundtracks — as an original soundtrack, this type of art is perfectly alright and just about impermeable to serious criticism; were this, however, to be The Greenwood Oratorio, Jonny would run some serious risks (though not as serious, perhaps, as Paul McCartney did, because Greenwood has had more training with this sort of thing). And yet, at the same time, you are not obliged to look at this as a soundtrack — you can have it either away and get away with it through any loophole you like.

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