Back in the old days, when someone first took a violin bow to the flat end of a saw and listened to wobbles hum forth, did he or she imagine that this would one day become a fitting addition to a future genre of music known as ambient? No, of course not, what a silly thought. But when I hear a saw being played on Radiohead drummer Philip Selway’s soundtrack for the film Let Me Go, it sounds like the instrument/tool and the music are the most natural fit in the world. Electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. Bass and funk. Drums and marches. Saw and ambient.
That’s not the only thing this soundtrack has going for it, but it is a striking example of how Selway is managing to spread his wings. Let Me Go is not only made up from different styles but also from different arrangements and ensembles. One moment he and his musicians are making acoustic-based Eno music with saw and piano. The next, he’s composing for a string quartet like his Radiohead colleague did for Paul Thomas Anderson. Then he’ll slide right back into singer-songwriter mode, spinning out quiet folk music that debatably shines brighter than the stuff on his solo albums. Maybe it’s the idea of working within another medium, or maybe it’s the weight of the story, but something about this context has brought the best out of Philip Selway thus far.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Let Me Go, the film is based on a memoir written by Helga Schneider, a writer who was just a young girl when her mother abandoned her and the rest of her family to become an SS officer in Nazi concentration camps. As Schneider visits her mother one last time in 1998, she tries to process the hatred she has for her mother’s actions while searching for a way to fill the void in her life that could have been maternal love. It’s heavy stuff to be sure, and regardless of one’s opinion of the music, no one can say that Selway didn’t try to fit the mood.
“Wide Open”, “Let Me Go” and “Walk”, the last of which is sung by Lou Rhodes of Lamb, are indicative of the tense folk-rock that has become Selway’s musical personalities on his solo albums. In other words, nothing like a Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood release. The lyrics are cryptic enough to work with both the film narrative as well as any other tale of heartbreak and disconnect. When it’s time to create an instrumental piece, the Radiohead drummer makes even more use of negative space as on the deceptively-named “Snakecharmer”. The unnerving piano figure and the complimentary cello part move as one unit to put you at unease. String arranger Laura Moody makes Selway’s ideas happen for the predictably somber numbers “Don’t Go Now” and “Mutti”, the latter being the maternal nickname that Schneider’s mother wants to hear so badly from her daughter’s mouth that she practically begs her to speak it.
The Let Me Go album begins and ends with “Helga’s Theme”. The first track sounds solemn enough with strings and piano, but the saw on the concluding track sounds like a theremin. Theremins signal the spooky, the troubling unknown. Reading the book Let Me Go gave me a glimpse of how Helga Schneider’s closure with her mother came in anything but a neat and tidy package. Philip Selway’s score and the concluding movement don’t betray this feeling.