T Bone Burnett's quietly wily companion album for the movie eschews pulse-pounding tension for acoustic angst
Listening to the T Bone Burnett-produced “Hunger Games” album, you might think you’ve stumbled across the Americana hour on NPR instead of obvious catnip for teenaged Katniss fans.
Then again, the album’s emphasis on quiet, mostly acoustic melancholia isn’t as counterintuitive as it initially seems. Maybe you were expecting pulse-pounding electronic dread, in the style of Trent Reznor. But does anything scream “adolescence angst” better than songs about societal oppression, alienation, survival, rebellion, and love in the face of death … even if mandolins are involved?
“Songs from District 12 and Beyond,” as the collection is subtitled, benefits from its liberating status as a companion album, as opposed to bona fide soundtrack. (Only three of the 16 tracks show up in the film, and those run over the end credits; James Newton Howard’s score album comes out next week.)
It’s more like a musical backstory, or prequel, if not the missing interior monologue that propelled the novel.
A few artists get downright literal in echoing aspects of Suzanne Collins’ story. Take the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose “Daughter’s Lament” sounds like a sorrowful hillbilly traditional that might have been passed down by Alan Lomax – at least until you remember that the “mockingjay,” heard informing a girl that her father has died in a coal mining accident, is a bird which exists nowhere outside of the “Hunger Games” mythology.
Taylor Swift and her duet partners, the Civil Wars, get into the Appalachian future-shock spirit with leadoff single “Safe & Sound,” designed as a lullaby and/or eulogy the heroine might sing to fallen comrades Rue, Peeta, or Prim. In this unexpected turn, Swift is almost as good a Katniss as Jennifer Lawrence.
The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard wrote two terrific narrative-specific songs that appear in succession on the album, although he only performs one of them. “Take the Heartland” has him veering nearly into punk mode as he imagines the story’s contestants being dropped into the games. His other writing contribution, “Come Away to the Water,” is interpreted by Maroon 5 with assistance from Rozzi Crane, a young signee to Adam Levine’s label.
Hansard has done such a grand job of playing this tune in recent solo shows that it’s initially disappointing that he handed it over to a smoother vocalist like Levine. On the other hand, there’s something nicely subversive about as household of a name as Maroon 5’s frontman assuming the sinister role of Cato, in a song that has him laying in wait for the heroine at the games’ oasis, sweetly cooing, “Come away little lamb, come away to the slaughter.”
Most of the material is intended to musically reflect the Appalachian region dubbed District 10, which pretty much leaves the “And Beyond” part of the title entirely to Kid Cudi, whose “The Ruler and the Killer” comes from the point of view of the dystopian government. Or, to put it another way: O Big Brother, where art thou?
But, as welcome an interruption as Cudi’s noisier contribution ought to be in theory, “Ruler and the Killer” reflects his hip-hop strengths far less than the hard rock aspirations that made his latest album an underperformer. “All of you people belong to me…/Survival of the fittest,” he moans, with the lack of conviction of someone who spent a minute and a half studying a plot outline on Wikipedia before improvising his lyrics in the studio.
Arcade Fire’s opening track was released some weeks back to alternative radio, and “Abraham’s Daughter” initially seemed underwhelming, between Regine Chassagne’s hard-to-decipher lead vocal and a martial beat that suppresses the potential for momentum.
But in this case, as the lyrics become clearer, the tune becomes more intriguing, as a feminist retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In their version of the Old Testament standby, the child sacrifice isn’t averted by God, but rather the previously unknown character of Isaac’s bow-and-arrow-wielding sister, who bears a certain similarity to an archery champion of the 24th century. (Maybe Arcade Fire should do a whole concept album where they drop Katniss into other literary or historical scenarios to take names and kick ass.)
Other standouts include a second track by the Civil Wars, “Kingdom Come,” which might serve as a bittersweet call to the hereafter in conjunction with the story’s severe mortality rate, along with spirited contributions from the Decemberists and Punch Brothers. And ending the album with a contribution from an actual 15-year-old — the promising English singer Birdy — makes for a nice tribute to the central "tribute" of "The Hunger Games."
If only Burnett had reprised the key song from his decade-old “O Brother” soundtrack and brought back Ralph Stanley. Could there have been a more perfect kicker for this teen-mortality-themed album than “O Death”? The kids would’ve loved it.