Nick Cave has been active in film soundtracks for twenty years now. On the other hand, Warren Ellis, Cave’s fellow composer on The Road, is less of a household name in the underground rock world outside of Australia. Ellis is a talented poly-instrumentalist (known especially for his creative mastery of the violin, making it sound like a fuzzed out guitar long before Andrew Bird came along and front man) of the indie instrumental rock group The Dirty Three since the early 90s. More recently, Ellis has joined Cave in collaboration on a number of film scores, beginning with 2005’s The Proposition.
The Road, a post-apocalyptic film directed by John Hillcoat and based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, would seem good musical match for Cave, as both he and the film share a repertoire of obsessions with apocalypse, love amidst violence and chaos, and existential musings about the human condition. The soundtrack is composed of 17 tracks that correspond to what appear to be scenes and/or characters in the film (“Home,” “The Road,” “The Mother,” etc.). The music is so wonderfully expressive that one can almost imagine the film itself based on the titles and the arrangements, which largely play to the strengths of the composing duo, strings and piano. Take the track “the House,” for example: eerie violin strings quiver and flutter, then circle like vultures, while a viola provides a slow, low foreboding structure. Intermittent bass piano keys sound like lumbering footsteps up to a mysterious abode on the road. Of course, the music builds to a crescendo and then goes berserk in the violent blues-jazz-punk fashion Cave and Ellis have both demonstrated with near unparalleled virtuosity in their respective catalogs over the last couple of decades.
Arguably, the success of a film score depends as much on the match between the aura of the film and the particular strengths and creative impulses of a composer, as it does on anything else. Cave and Ellis “feel” this film perfectly and with the help of equally talented session musicians, they have channeled that feeling into compositions that are a pleasure to contemplate in their own lone, spectacular depression.