Those who love Jon Hopkins’ stellar 2013 release Immunity will find a lot to love in his work for the film How I Live Now, which brings together spare piano chords with textural ambient and noise backgrounds to a Malick-esque effect.
The remarkable feat of Immunity, Jon Hopkins’ fourth solo record, is how it maintains a narrative in spite of its wordlessness. NPR, who was given exclusive rights to stream the album before its release date, wrote of its sonic, “Immunity is intended to mirror the feel of a night out, and it captures both highs and lows.” Though not a concept album in the strictest sense of the term, the pace and flow of Immunity nonetheless brings to the mind a sort of story—whether or not it is one involving the nightlife NPR imagined is, of course, a matter of interpretation. (It’s worth noting, however, that Hopkins himself sees it as a story.) The flow of the music is incredible, oscillating between bumping club beats to pastoral segments of textured synths and ambience, and with each “movement”, if one will allow the phrase, the hidden story beneath the music becomes more vivid. Lead single “Open Eye Signal” twitches and glitches atop a pulsating beat for seven minutes. Plinking piano notes keep a steady beat amidst the buzzy bass of “Form by Firelight.”
One moment in particular, however, has a power that could stop the world around it if it saw fit to. Following the thudding beat of “Collider”, a single piano chord plays, ringing ever so delicately. This is the beginning of “Abandon Window,” Immunity’s highlight moment. Then what sounds like a steady autumn wind blowing through trees just shedding their leaves—though really one could insert any florid description of air-sounding textures here should she so wished—begins to fill the space around the piano. This interplay grows and grows until the song somehow explodes and implodes at the same time, pulling off a crescendo that somehow doesn’t feel like one. It’s a spectacular, breathtaking piece of songwriting; Hopkins’ past associations with professional tearjerkers Coldplay has rubbed off on him in mood, though not in technique. Amidst Immunity’s flux, “Abandon Window” is a breather that that leaves you breathless.
Hopkins clearly knows a thing or two about where his best skills lie, as he takes what makes “Abandon Window” so resonant and turns it up several degrees on his score to How I Live Now, Kevin Macdonald’s film adaptation of Meg Rosott’s popular young adult fiction novel of 2004. Along with a song contribution from Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra (energetic opener “Do it with a Rockstar”), a collaboration with Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan (“Garden Heart”), and a remix of a Daughter track (“Home”), Hopkins gives How I Live Now a batch of intimate, piano-led pieces that, like “Abandon Window,” juxtapose beautiful chords and melodies with spacious, airy ambient backgrounds. Hopkins uses that stylistic in a variety of different ways and moods; while the atmospheric “Rain and Ash” brings to mind Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the images evoked by the arpeggios of “The Hawk” are those of looking at sunlight as it peers through a canopy of trees. “Nightfall/Love Theme” even brings to mind the pastoral folk of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose work for Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford marks some of the finest film music of the past decade. In having film to work with to inspire the music (note: at the time of writing this review, I have not seen How I Live Now, so I cannot speak to how well the visuals pair with the cinema), Hopkins takes the strong material coming out of the Immunity sessions and shapes it into a remarkable overall soundscape, one that’s as narrative as that album. It’s no coincidence that “Abandon Window” bears such a similarity to the music here; speaking to M, Hopkins explains, “I did [How I Live Now] the same time as Immunity. It was a crazy amount of time spent in the studio. But it flowed really well for that film.”
While Kevin Macdonald, whose big-name credit prior to this film is the Forest Whitaker character vehicle The Last King of Scotland (though he is often overlooked for his excellent 2003 climbing drama Touching the Void), is no Terrence Malick, but he’s blessed by Hopkins’ gift in crafting immersive sonic environments. Malick lately has taken to the dramatic grandeur of Romantic composers in accruing music for his movies (see the spot-on usage of Berlioz' Requiem at the end of The Tree of Life) Hopkins, though not so maximalist in his arrangements, with How I Live Now is taking on a sonic that would befit a Malick film. The way the smallness of these compositions—short chord progressions, melodies comprised of spare notes—invoke a larger sense of life and all its complexity is more or less Malick's MO. In The Tree of Life, a simple childhood memory calls to the mind the plight of Job. A gorgeously captured shot of a river leads to metaphysical musings about the horrors of war in The Thin Red Line. With How I Live Now, Hopkins is capturing high emotionality with only a few musical ingredients, a feat that makes one wonder why he is only now beginning to get more requests for scoring gigs. But, then again, with results like this, it's not hard to imagine they'll start coming in soon.