It’s been more than 25 years since Danny Elfman released a rock album. That was 1994’s Boingo, the short-lived alternative rock reimagining of his ’80s new wave band, Oingo Boingo. By that point in his career, Elfman was already better known as a film composer, having created some of the most iconic movie themes of the 1980s and 1990s. His early work with director Tim Burton produced the music to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman (1989), and The Nightmare Before Christmas, to name a few, and Elfman has had a steady and productive career writing film scores ever since. Big Mess, though, is a return to rock music in a big way, featuring 18 songs and over 70 minutes of music.
Elfman isn’t interested in rehashing his Oingo Boingo days, though. Big Mess is an album full of big echoing drums, crunching guitars, and ominous strings. It’s a record dedicated to heavy music, and at times these songs evoke acts including Nine Inch Nails, King Crimson, Devin Townsend, and David Bowie. But Elfman doesn’t always come out favorably in those comparisons, and at times the songs feel oppressive, repetitive, and behind the times.
There are some instances where the songs on Big Mess succeed. The opener “Sorry” has a satisfyingly crunchy guitar riff, while multiple female voices bounce off each other, repeating variations of “I’m so sorry”. Tense strings ping around in the background, adding a layer of atmosphere to the song. Elfman comes in on vocals after about 90 seconds, singing in a low baritone while drums pound away. Just after the three-minute mark, the song takes a turn in a more driving direction as Elfman gets to the point. “I will never have to see your fucking face. You suffocate me,” he says, and the vitriol gets more intense from there.
“Everybody Loves You” is the album’s longest track at just over seven minutes, and this length allows Elfman time to work through some musical ideas fully. It begins with simple marimba notes and low strings, reminiscent of some of his film score work. Other interesting noises flit through in the background before a heavily distorted guitar enters just past the one-minute mark. The song briefly pulls back and puts the marimba theme on an acoustic guitar before rocking out. The acoustic guitar returns a minute later and sticks around, giving the song a significantly different sonic texture than the bulk of the album, particularly when it blends with the string section. The ebb and flow of this track are what makes it work, and the heavy guitar sections feel earned.
Other tracks on Big Mess work partially. “Serious Ground” balances complex string parts and buzzing guitars quite well. Still, the lyrics recounting the Trump era in terms like, “There’s no reason to worry / No, it can’t happen here / ‘Cause it’s a third world story / And it can’t happen here” are more than a little heavy-handed. “Kick Me” begins with horror-movie strings and fast drums and keeps up the intensity for its short two-minute running time. But the sarcastic lyrics, “Kick me / I’m a celebrity” and “Pick me / I’m American”, feel leftover from the 1990s. “Love in the Time of COVID” begins with creepy, fun strings and sounds like the theme song to a mystery TV show. But its lyrics, which are literally about quarantine and awkward dating, which were very timely a year ago, already feel dated.
Elfman’s lyrics were a recurring sticking point for me. “Choose Your Side”, coming directly after the Trump-era warnings of “Serious Ground”, is even more blatant, opening with a soundbite from Trump himself promising, “It’s a great thing that’s happening to our country. It’s a great day for… everybody!” Elfman laments the apparent victory of Americans’ fears over reason while imploring the listener to “Choose your side”. Musically, it’s a slow industrial groove with a lot of atmosphere but not much in the way of melody or hooks. “Happy” has a bounce to its strings that most of the other tracks do not, but Elfman’s chanting of “I’m so happy” juxtaposed with lines like “Everything is shutting down” and “Choose your poison”, especially with falsetto vocals repeating these mantras, doesn’t come off as particularly clever or appealing.
Even “Insects”, a reworked version of an Oingo Boingo song, has its issues. Many of the lyrics are the same, but Elfman adds new stanzas that compare insects to politicians. “Insects walking on two legs / Insects fucking with our heads / Insects’ work is never done / They’ve all moved to Washington.” And then just, “Old white men, they want to suck my blood.” This heavy-handedness is obvious and a little tiresome, especially since this version of the song excises the horn section and most of the dance-oriented bits that made the original a lot of fun.
Ultimately, Big Mess is not a lot of fun. There’s something of value to Elfman just coming out and airing his grievances with politics and celebrities and society and whatever else is bothering him. The album is constant grievances, though, and it doesn’t help that Elfman is limited as a vocalist. His default is a sort of speak-singing monotone that doesn’t help add color to the songs that are largely crunchy guitars and big drums.
Many of these tracks don’t even have much in the way of guitar riffs or interesting drum rhythms, even though studio aces like drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Robin Finck (both veterans of Nine Inch Nails) are doing excellent work with their playing throughout the album. Combined with Elfman’s lack of vocal color, this makes the album sound like a buzzing, pounding collection of white noise punctuated by occasional bursts of interesting string themes or the odd downtempo track. At 73 minutes long, though, Big Mess has a lot of white noise to sit through.