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Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
War Machine OST Brendan Telford , August 1st, 2017 15:04

War Machine is not a great film but the soundtrack, from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is quite possibly a classic.

What an age we live in, eh? Where War Machine, a £60m Hollywood film directed by wunderkind Aussie director David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) and bankrolled and starring Brad Pitt, foregoes the cinema and streams exclusively on the internet (the satire about the war in Afghanistan is a Netflix Original). But in the dying era of the bankable star, even Pitt cannot save War Machine from being a strained disappointment.

Yet not everything went wrong here. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis were drafted in to do the soundtrack and, as has been their way since their score for 2005’s The Proposition, their collaboration has born forth something of a classic.

Pitt may have been involved in bringing Cave and Ellis on board, as the duo were responsible for the elegiac soundscapes on his The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Unlike that score though, War Machine feels decidedly at odds with every other aspect of the film it has been layered into – there is no bombast, no lashing of broad strokes, no signposted crescendos or contrived heart tugs. It is also decidedly synthetic in design, the electronic manipulations overtaking some of the more organic instrumentation and compositions.

‘Ah America’ is indicative of the deep-cleanse sanitation of American culture, a simplistic ephemeral new-age roll in the hay, lulling the listener into believing this will be a sanitised record of someone’s existential reckoning. ‘Humble Man’ quickly turns this on its head – delineated by a finger-round-glass pitched drone, bow-on-bandsaw moan and a choral groan from the subterranean depths. It also touches on the duo’s proclivity for echoing the loneliness, the alienness, of the landscapes and people of the stories they flesh out. The elegant piano and shimmering cymbals that accompany the glassine chimes of ‘The Bubble’ or the gentle, childlike glockenspiel of ‘The Civilian Executive’ evoke a dreamlike state of someone else’s imagining – the former fragile and gossamer thin, the latter underscored with bell chimes, marching beats and an indefinable shriek.

‘Badi Basim’ has pipes and circular drone that evokes a Middle Eastern otherness, something that western films about the Middle East often bastardise (the cringeworthy score of Whisky Tango Foxtrot comes immediately to mind) but that's offset here by Cave’s spidery, eloquent piano strokes. ‘Our Noise’ is given the bombastic bass drum, pan pipe and pattered percussion treatment you might expect in a playful 80s adventure excursion, but it is again imbued with a melancholy that belies its playfulness. The fact that it leads straight into ‘Jeanie’, possibly the most reflective and meditative piece on here, and most reminiscent of a Bad Seeds/Dirty Three opening thread, shows that despite the layers of meaning and contemplation there is a concerted effort to beguile and misdirect.

‘Thousands of Parades, All Over America’ plays with an oscillating, wavering drone, a tone that is almost nostalgic in its softness before it wavers and drops, a distorted percussive click the turning over of bodies perishing on foreign soil that accompanies the souring of the misanthropic belief that America can cure all. Ellis’ violin comes in the final third, joined by a tape-hiss wracked choral moan that mourns loss like a Greek chorus looped on one of Basinki’s disintegrating tapes.

‘Marjah’ is an exercise in existential unease, undulating epiglottal clicks, rippling synth warbles, periods of dense silence – it’s an echo chamber of paranoia, highlighting the grey area of global conflict and those in the middle where a hitherto hidden reality starts to loom large in the rear-view mirror. The eponymous final track brings us full circle, the languorous military drum roll reminding us that we are supposed to be in the realm of a jingoist euphoria yet are left eternally searching for meaning, for justification, for renewal, for a future.

The underlying notion behind a Cave-Ellis score is the implicit lyricism evoked within the sounds and spaces they create. While much has been said about Cave’s esoteric linguistics, he has surrounded himself for years with those who speak volumes through the caressing of their beloved instrument. Ellis is a rare beast in that he has taken the violin and given it a voice well beyond what would be deemed possible or even acceptable in his Dirty Three guise. And with War Machine they have created a cyclical journey – one that starts light and familiar, before taking the listener down a river of minimalist self-discovery that is always in twilight, always in purgatory, always without end.

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