[11 August 2008]
Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely was always going to be a “problem film”, one of those movies that is praised as genius by a very few, while being dismissed as occasionally inspired but largely indulgent by most critics, and—most importantly—only given an extremely limited release in the U.S. and the rest of the world. This is due to Korine’s habitual avoidance of narrative and thematic conventions, in this case resulting in a movie about a Scottish commune where celebrity impersonators, not the kind who occasionally do it for money, but the kind that remain in character at all times—read, psychically damaged—try to somehow live together with their monstrously wounded egos. But, from the start, the soundtrack seemed like a far more stable commodity, being the work of underground stalwarts J. Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce), of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, and Sun City Girls, and to be released on Chicago’s eminent Drag City label. The problem, though, is that it’s a soundtrack, and the last original soundtrack album I can remember that felt like an independently vital contribution to music was Air’s Virgin Suicides way back in 2000. Bearing that in mind, the resulting album comes as a minor rather than a grave disappointment.
It opens rather strongly, though, with the film’s lead actor, Diego Luna, speaking of the desire to escape one’s self into the persona of someone extraordinary—in his character’s case, Michael Jackson—over wayward semi-melodies of vibraphone, piano, and bass smeared together by Pierce to sound like an old tape decayed from prolonged exposure to water. It is exactly the combination of fragility and gradually dawning possibility called for by the text, so that, by the time Luna gets to the lines, “It is time to change our face and become who we want to be”, any cynicism you felt at the beginning of the monologue is likely to have melted away into a readiness for or semblance of belief. Pierce’s follow-up, “Blues 1”, isn’t quite as affecting without the meaning of the spoken words, but, the sounds are upfront and immaculately recorded, with the added bonus of lap-steel, some skittery plucked strings, and the vintage repeater effect Pierce has been depending on for over 20 years, and which is still just as hypnotic every time he uses it. The 38-second “Blues 2 (Intro)” is next, but it doesn’t stick around long enough to make any impression beyond the barest suggestion of more lap-steel and some cluttering percussion. But the transition to the Sun City Girls’ “3D Girls” is natural enough that you’d hardly know different artists were at work, with an opening of acoustic guitars and wordless male chorus, eventually opening out into ambient-metal diva Jessica Kinney’s harmonies, muted slide guitar, and an indeterminate drone panning continuously from channel to channel, contributing to the feeling that the listener is suspended in some state of minor grace.
Cue abrasive free-jazz skree on flute and possibly clarinet, with distortion and feedback, and producing some nearly unlistenable high-end tones. This is Pierce’s way of ushering us out of the album’s best sequence and into the drudgery that follows, although none of it as annoying as this one, perversely the longest of all his contributions, entitled “Panama 1”. Sun City Girls then give us a lazy bit of sub-horror movie ambience called “Spook”—at least they achieved what they were going for, I guess—and a throat-singing and piano embarrassment, “Steppe Spiritual”, before we come to Pierce’s “Garden Walk”, a decent imitation of a forgettable baroque classical piece that begs the question of why? “Pope in the Bath”, probably Pierce’s best contribution, does save the middle portions of the disc a bit. The combination of piano, bass, lap-steel, vibes, crazily-delayed, plucked strings, and plenty of reverb is familiar by now, but here he wraps it up in a strong composition that is only marred by its short length: a minute-and-a-half isn’t quite long enough for the emotion of the piece to fully reveal itself. Following another snippet of dialogue from the movie—this time unaccompanied—of a nun’s earnest prayer that God invest her with the power of flight, it would be hard for Sun City Girls’ “Mr. Lonely Viola” not to represent an improvement, and it’s not a bad track. Jessica Kinney’s vocals have returned and the arrangement lacks the clichés of their self-consciously “ethnic” material, but there’s nothing particularly distinguished about it, nothing that makes you want to listen again.
The same can be said for the music on the rest of the album. We get a “Circus Theme” from Sun City Girls, a vertigo-inducing blast of electronics and “Stooges Harmonica” from J. Spaceman, lots more placid harmonies and predictable strings. A Werner Herzog monologue from the movie—with the once-great filmmaker solemnly reiterating his favorite shtick about how the earth is a desolate place, ruled by chaos—is a welcome, humorous inclusion, although I’m not sure Korine or anyone involved thinks it’s funny. If that’s a big draw for you, you can get it by renting the movie for a lot less than the cost of this CD. You’ll also get to see the scene of a nun flying on a bicycle, one of the most awe-inducing, ethereal moments in all film, shot from odd angles with a control that hardly seems possible. Korine scored it with a track off A Silver Mt. Zion’s eight-year-old debut that is similar to many of the things Pierce and Sun City Girls have come up with in its combination of strings and mysterious, echoing harmonies, although there is an alien wonder, a sense, almost, of a new emotion being sounded out right before our ears, that is never approached in any of the film’s original music. It’s telling that Korine engaged such underground heavyweights to score his film, but opted to use the A Silver Mt. Zion track for the one scene in his movie that is unequivocally magical—and almost an admission that, on some level, he knew none of the new pieces were as penetrating or original as he might have hoped.