Large numbers of potential listeners will overlook this record by one-time Dead Can Dance siren Lisa Gerrard. They will see the serene jade and aquamarine cover art, they will note the title - Whalerider—and if they even bother to flip it over, they will see the word “soundtrack” and a track listing that reads like the always-pristine CDs you might find at some uppity beauty salon, right there on the rack next to the aromatherapy samples. In other words, every possible New Age/World Music alarm bell will be tripped. The only way in which this indifferent fate might be avoided is if the independent New Zealand film it accompanies were to become one of those sleeper hits along the lines of Bend it Like Beckham. Which perhaps isn’t so outlandish considering Whalerider the movie is a coming-of-age tale in which a young Maori girl must overcome patriarchal tradition in pursuit of her destiny (and by all accounts is profoundly accomplished within those fairly standard parameters).
The film has garnered some impressive plaudits and awards already, so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic on behalf of Ms. Gerrard’s potential unit-shifting. But given all of the above, anyone seeking either irony or musical experimentation will no doubt move quickly along.
One of Dead Can Dance’s strengths was their ability to tease not just melody but rhythm out of the lifeless wood that comprised their often exotic instruments—the dead can dance, geddit?—but without Brendan Perry, the solo Gerrard has a tendency to drift toward the ethereal and the gossamer. This hasn’t stopped her making some fine, if occasionally patchy, contributions toward movie soundtracks as disparate as Baraka, Ali, and Gladiator. Her Golden Globe-winning collaborative work with film composer Hans Zimmer on the latter epic demonstrates how clearly his approach toward the art of pacing and patience must have rubbed off on her, now that her name alone is credited. This soundtrack shares some remarkable similarities of mood and atmosphere with Zimmer’s work on 1999’s The Thin Red Line, for example.
This is certainly no vanity project. Gerrard’s signature otherworldly vocal cords are given few workouts here. Without even the movie images to guide our listening, there is a tidal ebb and flow to the music that’s as large and impersonal as the South Pacific and the titular behemoths that glide beneath its translucent swelling skin. Paikea, the young protagonist, introduces “Paikea Legend” in a voice surprisingly deep and rich for a 12-year-old girl: “In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness / It was waiting / Waiting for someone to love it”. Ominous surf breaks susurrant on beach sands. Strings build and swell, and a disembodied voice of something ancient and feminine moans its siren song offshore. There is no real need for a song-by-song description. Ethnic rhythms, deep timbre drumbeats, vie with spectral electric piano glissandos; forces suggesting an approaching storm move around the edges, building as imperceptibly as the incoming tide. This music sounds like it’s made from the green and blue ends of the spectrum. Most songs are sketches, tiny atmospheric encapsulations of a mood. Much of its richness will presumably only reveal itself in the context of the movie itself, but it’s a testament to Gerrard’s craft that, given the right circumstances, it can stand alone.
“Biking Home” is startling in its revisiting of old Dead Can Dance tropes. That hammered dulcimer sound is like a wry smile for anyone who loved their early work. But it is accompanied by a more accomplished rhythm here, too, giving it a welcome twist. Tiny string and piano vignettes like “Ancestors” and “Suitcases” well up like salt tears all over this record, like sudden squalls, then sink beneath the waves once more. It’s surprisingly emotional music, even without context, much less bravado or melodrama. Gerrard’s distinctive vocal sound, a fleeting bank of rushing cloud moving in a stream over deceptively placid waters, appears briefly on “Pai Calls the Whales” and merges for a while with “Reiputa” (and later, to sorrowful effect on “They Came to Die”), and as low key as this record is, none of the songs overstays its welcome. It rarely becomes the featureless becalmed lassitude it really ought to be. Mysteries lie offshore, currents pluck at the unwary. “Disappointed” sounds like Hans Zimmer collaborating with Angelo Badalamenti, a Twin Peaks for the blue abyss. Twin Troughs, perhaps.
It would be easy to dismiss this record as another earnest whale song hippie fest, if it weren’t for the heart swelling moments that transcend predictability—the South Sea Island Boys Choir on “Paikea’s Whale” after the whale sounds; the people of Whangara itself chanting in the throes of call-and-response intensity on “Waka in the Sky” and “Go Forward”, the closing two tracks. The latter is the longest song at almost six minutes, and burbling electronic warbles are subsequently buried by those fierce deep-chested Maori war chants known as the Haka (literally, “ignite the breath”). It’s compelling and moving. And when it’s done, we are left with the timeless roll of the ocean once more, as if the human spirit just up and left. Neither original nor especially unexpected, but who doesn’t love that sound? Right?
I didn’t expect to enjoy this record. There are few handholds. It’s disorienting when you can’t tell the sea from the sky, and everything merges like soft currents, blonde sand sifted through fingers. Yet it manages to reach out and surprise a genuine heart murmur response despite an overall lack of texture and rhythm. Your standard Hollywood soundtrack featuring the latest clamoring chart denizens this most definitely ain’t. But you knew that when you looked at the cover. And given the right circumstances—approximately 40 minutes of high volume languid receptivity sounds ideal—Whalerider carries a surprisingly deep emotional payoff, as if the very weather itself suddenly got personal.