The whole idea of a soundtrack album is a bit of a strange concept, isn’t it? On one hand, you have previously released (and often well-known) songs randomly pasted together, frequently with utter disregard to sequenced flow or musical cohesion. In other words: largely unattractive mixtapes. On the other hand, you have music written specifically for films, which typically suffers when disconnected from its visual source. Neither of these negative scenarios should be blamed on the artists, themselves; you’re hearing songs either removed from their album or film contexts — a truly tough proposition to have much success with.
It comes as a surprise, then, to find that the soundtrack to Noah Baumbach’s coming of (middle) age comedy Greenberg, written and recorded largely by James Murphy, frontman/writer/producer for indie dance kings LCD Soundsystem, works largely as its own musical statement.
Baumbach’s film follows Greenberg: the man (Ben Stiller), a grumpy, washed out 40-year-old musician, who, after losing his job, takes a gig housesitting for his brother in LA, experiencing disconnect from society, romantic security, and himself. Murphy’s songs put you in this sonic headspace, and you don’t even need the film to get there. The music exudes California warmth tempered with irony, occasionally delivered tongue in cheek, always delivered with craft and passion.
Does this album completely escape the trappings of soundtrack tedium? Not completely. The set opens with Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner”, a fine enough classic rock song, as those of us who have heard it 546 times on the radio can vouch, but it serves as an awkward introduction into a rather subdued album of quiet soundscapes, ambient grooves, and acoustic lullabies, the latter in particular surely coming as a shock for fans of LCD Soundsystem’s in-your-face, hipster robot, dancefloor funk. When Murphy recently stated that the soundtrack sounded nothing like his main band, it appears he wasn’t kidding.
Despite being largely credited to Murphy alone, LCD Soundsystem is credited with one track here: the excellent, deep skeletal acid groove of “(Oh You) Christmas Blues”, which, with its bursts of overdriven guitar skronk and primally screamed vocals, sounds like an outtake from John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
On “People”, we are introduced to Murphy in loverman mode, applying a clumsy yet charming falsetto, as he stretches his pleas (“Baby, you gotta promise me somethin’!”) into soul crooner territory over a programmed bossa nova rhythm. It almost sounds like an in-studio joke, something Murphy could have cut in eight minutes with his bandmates laughing their asses off in the control room. His sloppy organ playing, which pretty much unintentionally dances around every proper beat accent, sounds like it was recorded during an overnight drunk.
“Sleepy Baby” opens with the typical electronic wash of sound you’d expect in a film score before settling into a soft electro beat that could have come from a Beach House album, a simple two-chord synth progression; percussive, echoing drones; and some melodic, Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds bass playing. This, like other brief, pleasing filler tracks (“Thumbs”, “Suburbia”) are probably the most dependent on their visual counterpoints, but on their own merits, they work nicely as music to listen to at 3 am while driving around in an unfamiliar town.
“Plenty of Time” is a true, unabashed album standout. This is not only one of the most rewarding tracks here, but it also stands out as a piece that works separately from the whole concept of “movie music”. This is a song worthy of whatever album on which Murphy decided to place it. It is an exercise in (once again) Pet Sounds-esque atmosphere, riding a simple, reverb-drenched click-track heartbeat, flowing Beck-like vocal harmonies, and a thick, jittery bassline that never seems to sit still. Not only a highlight of this soundtrack, “Plenty of Time” is one of Murphy’s finest moments to date.
The transitions from Murphy to non-Murphy material is slightly jarring, especially during the first half, where ambient washes of electronic sound uncomfortably rub elbows with dated 70’s singer-songwriter production (see: Albert Hammond’s fairly corny “It Never Rains in Southern California”). However, rounding that curve to the album’s second half is worth it.
Eventually, Murphy unleashes his inner Cat Stevens, delivering a winsome handful of lo-fi, acoustic singer-songwriter moments that are equal to (and occasionally, surprisingly) more effective than the ambience. The very idea of one of modern music’s kings of dance rock writing a series of gentle, fingerpicked ditties in the vein of Ram era Paul McCartney is a bit off-putting on paper, but it works beautifully. “Birthday Song” is most effective; it’s a hushed lullaby from father to son, its gentle harmonies, plucked acoustics, and analogue hiss supporting lyrics like “You can throw a tantrum / We can tie your shoe / If you don’t feel sleepy, we’ll just read until you do”.
Like much of the work here, “Birthday Song” sounds refreshingly tossed-off. In taking a break from his attention-demanding main gig, Murphy proves himself a capable and affecting songwriter when armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and his voice. He’s always been able to write melodies, but who knew the man has such a…pretty voice? Who knew his tastes were this eclectic?
As he has clearly indicated in recent interviews, the forthcoming LCD Soundsystem album will have little to no musical resemblance to this one. It’s almost a shame. However, with his band’s future in question and with the beginnings of a strong film score resume, James Murphy just may have found his future musical calling.