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Album Of The Week

Signature Tunes: Themes From Nyx Nótt
Bernie Brooks , December 1st, 2022 09:43

Aidan Moffat’s second outing as Nyx Nótt, an out-of-time set of faux themes, is as odd as it is compelling, says Bernie Brooks

When composer Dave Grusin and the songwriting team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman got together to knock out some television themes in the early 1970s, I doubt any of them were shooting for much more than a payday. It’s hard to imagine them writing for longevity. I mean, how long do most shows last? Tellingly, in the Bergmans’ wiki bio, television is hardly mentioned at all, let alone their theme songs – you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the ‘Notable Works’ to see those. Grusin’s, meanwhile, slots TV themes near the bottom of his bio, just below film scores. Which seems about par for the course. Nevertheless, at some point in 1973 or so, this storied trio of showbiz jobbers wrote a 90-second ditty that has occupied a chunk of my brain for the better part of 43 years. I am, of course, talking about the theme to Good Times, which debuted along with the show on 9 February 1979 – the year I was born. Sung by Motown-er Blinky Williams and Jim Gilstrap and a gospel choir, the song is unquestionably something of an uncomfortable relic – but that doesn't make it any less catchy. So, there it’s been, always near the front of my mind, and there’s about a 40% chance that I’m humming it right now, as you read this, whenever it is you’re reading this.

But would I choose to listen to it? That’s an altogether different story, and to be honest, I’m not sure it even matters. And anyway, I still eat McDonald’s from time to time. Salt and empty calories are briefly, instantly delicious, and the same applies to these themes, I think, whether we’re talking about Good Times or Lalo Schifrin. The thing that matters is the same: to immediately appeal to the broadest possible segment of consumers before they even have time to think about it. These songs and compositions are so deeply commodified, they more or less become commercials. And like a good commercial, they want to barrel into your mind and stay there, succinctly communicating something, ideally for all time. In this case, the vibe of the television show in question. So what if that doesn’t make for a particularly nutritious or satisfying meal in and of itself? A theme has a job to do. It’s a byproduct of a system that, historically speaking, isn’t necessarily all that invested in making reliably great art, nor does it care to be great art. Does said byproduct pop unbidden into your head decades after the show it was written for has been cancelled? Wonderful. Who cares if it’s a manufactured simulacrum of soul music and ultimately obvious as such? Who cares if it’s mostly empty? It did its job.

So, it’s almost certainly for the best that Aidan Moffat scrapped the original plan for Themes From, his second instrumental outing as Nyx Nótt. Initially intended to be comprised of “twenty 90-second tracks designed as TV themes,” Moffat found the whole thing “unsatisfying” and “gimmicky and silly,” which I’m sure it was. Divorced from its purpose, a theme song is gutted. It exists in relationship to another, primary work. If that relationship is severed, what’s left? By Moffat’s own account, not much. Still, as an exercise, Moffat’s wasn't pointless, and it’s clear from the version of Themes From that we actually get to hear – eight, fully fleshed-out lengthy tracks, each named after a genre of television – that he’s fully ingested and digested all the meaty bits that give television themes their power – their immediacy, their drama, their earworm hooks coupled with narrative drive.

Still, it’s not as if Moffat was a stranger to any of those things prior to Themes From. His best-known group, Arab Strap, made drama and narrative drive their stock-in-trade for decades, and it’s not as if they shied away from earworm hooks or immediacy, either. To be sure, one can easily draw parallels here and there between Arab Strap’s As Days Get Dark and Themes From or Moffat’s recent work with The Twilight Sad’s James Graham as Gentle Sinners, for that matter. There’s a sort of sweeping, self-aware noir grandeur that all three projects share, and some sonic touchstones, too. Which is to be expected, of course, but that’s not to say that one could easily be mistaken for the other – far from it. Themes From is neither as delightfully lachrymose nor sordid as Arab Strap can be, nor does it operate in the wild-eyed, high-key, outré pop sphere that Gentle Sinners stake out. It also, weirdly enough, lands miles away from the sometimes jarring, slow-burn nocturnal soundscapes of Aux Pieds De La Nuit, Moffat’s previous outing as Nyx Nótt, which feel cinematic rather than televisual, and believe me, there’s a difference. The tracks on Aux Pieds, they’re mysterious, unfurling slowly, in longform. The compositions on Themes From, well, they’re direct, self-contained, straight to the point. They let you know what they’re on about in that all-important first 90 seconds or so, despite the fact that they shift and evolve and climax for much longer than that.

Given the album’s central conceit, it’s surprising that it doesn’t feel like a comp, somewhat disjointed, each number disconnected from the last. Instead, there’s a whole alternate Now thing happening that unifies the work, relating the compositions to one another. I’m hesitant to lean too heavily on hauntology, but there is a certain Ghost Box-ness to the goings on here. Each track seems informed by an un-past, an idea of its genre’s history, or perhaps Moffat’s ideal genre history – whether ‘Docudrama’ or ‘Caper’ or ‘Tearjerker’. In any event, when Moffat arrives at his Now on each of these tracks and on the record as a whole, it’s unidentifiable as our own.

Adding to this out-of-time-ness, to this weird asynchronicity – and to the album’s sense of unity – is Moffat’s artistically shrewd use of professional TV and film sample libraries as his primary palette. It’s essential to the album’s overall aesthetic, and to the success of the individual tracks. I’m not sure ‘Tearjerker’ would work nearly as well without the canned strings or that perfect, sub-Twin Peaks piano. The moment the breakbeats kick in would feel so much more… normal. Which, to be clear, is something this LP is not.

A simple truth about television themes is that every single one was a paycheck. Even the greats, by legit artistes. And that’s fine. Most were written by folks ‘normal’ music fans have never heard of. Artists trying to scratch out a living, job to job, probably hoping for a break. Which is fair enough, but the best themes – the best of the best – even without their corresponding programmes, they are full. They transcend by daring to be more than the audience expects while still fulfilling their brief. The most impressive thing about the odd, faux themes on Themes From is that they somehow convey that feeling, that sense of having glimpsed what an artist truly has to offer within work so commodified and confined, that feeling of someone breaking free. Technically speaking, that should be impossible, right? There’s no show, no brief – really, these aren’t themes at all. Now that, that’s something.