• Reel Reviews

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ Forgotten Songs for the Dead

written by: on May 23, 2011

Bells patter and flourish, a triangle is struck, a piano pans dreamily over a few keys, while a narrator speaks, “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed.”

He was a murderer, a thief and a Confederate loyalist, but he was also the most famous man in the United States and a folk hero of sorts. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was directed by Andrew Dominik and despite immersive performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard and Mary Louise Parker it managed to fly under the radar in 2007. What’s more, Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis composed the soundtrack; their contribution to the film was something magical. It was something barely discernable and yet it more than achieved its role.

The soundtrack, like Dominik’s film has no misconceptions over Jesse James, he is a killer, a shaky, untrusting miscreant, but he’s also a family man, a churchgoer looking to leave the worst of his days behind him.

He’s also not the protagonist; he is an enigma and the all-coveted myth for Robert Ford. Their relationship—Bob’s adoration and Jesse’s patronage—is given due examination by the wonderment and creeping tension of the songs, a story that spans the distance of the Great Plains.

“I can’t figure you out,” Jesse tells Bob during an afternoon bath, “You wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?” All the uncertainty and suspicion is tangible, though music rarely plays during the film—when it does it’s absolutely necessary. On, “Last Ride Back to KC,” taut, winding strings make it possible to feel the smoke rising underneath a train that will bear away two men to their destinies. It works like a Greek chorus, bewailing the powerlessness of mortals over their own fate. Though the sounds are minimal, the scope is epic in proportion.

Every song was composed with 19th century “frontier” aesthetic in mind, but rather than attempt to recreate a period score, a more expressionistic homage to the time resulted. Using prickly guitars, live strings, wide-channel bass—as in the film, nothing is forced—everything is given ample time and space to breathe. Its sad legato strings are the perfect accompaniment to a film with long, drawn out silences and gigantic visuals of big sky country, moving as slowly as a novel, the notes incanted by the former Bad Seeds are few and far between. The soft, meditative “Counting the Stars,” accompanies a winter’s night ride, where Jesse leads a treacherous friend out into the woods to kill him.

While most of the track titles follow typical movie score format—names of scenes or key lines delivered, there are two eerily strange exceptions where the songs are dedicated not to the characters but what appears to be the men themselves.

“Song for Jesse,” swirls in whispering lullaby terror, for the man “who went everywhere unrecognized.” The elegiac “Song for Bob,” is a dark if not unsympathetic ballad to the 19-year-old willing to do anything for fame. It’s almost as if Nick Cave composed it to be heard by heaven.

Then there is the bizarre scene of Jesse’s death—killed by the gun he gave to Bob as a coming-of-age present. Realizing Ford has betrayed him, James stands by a window and ceremonially removes his guns, “For fear the neighbors might see them.” He delivers his famous last words, “Don’t that picture look dusty,” and stands on a chair with his back turned to Rob and his brother Charley, who exchange reluctant glances. Its accompaniment, “What Must Be Done,” is an achingly slow funeral march on piano followed by a horrific unraveling of low strings that, in the film, cut suddenly with the sound of a gunshot.

A good soundtrack can put listeners back in the world of the film, stirring emotions and memories that seemed dependent on visuals. A great soundtrack has a life of its own; enjoyable in and of itself. But there’s something more to be said for a soundtrack that transcends the film altogether, a comment on the myth itself—and allows the audience, if only for a moment, to see into their eyes.