Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

The Road Soundtrack

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, the best way still being to get someone else to do it and then take the credit. Since time immemorial, great artists have been working with others lurking in the shadows to billow smoke and put the mirrors in the right place. There always needs to be someone there to pull strings, or in the case of Warren Ellis, to bow and pluck them too. Nick Cave has famously collaborated to great effect over the years, with the cast incrementally changing and being replaced as others exit (though usually with significant overlap) like the corporeal replenishing process of human DNA; the late Rowland S. Howard, and more recent departures Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey.. These days you don’t often see Nick Cave if Warren Ellis isn’t also in sight, while Cave’s other great modern accomplice in his artistic endeavours is most comfortable sat behind the camera. John Hillcoat, a stalwart of the moody goth video (having made promos for the likes of Placebo, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Depeche Mode) is fast becoming a celebrated film director thanks to two acclaimed movies marked by the red right hand of Nick Cave.

Cave and Ellis not only scored the soundtrack for The Proposition but Cave wrote the script. It was Hillcoat too who provided the impetus for Cave’s second novel The Death of Bunny Monroe, which started life as a screenplay, before he (maybe a little too) hastily knocked the book off on the back of a tour bus in six weeks. Which brings us to The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning novel of the same name, a post-apocalyptic nightmare seen through the eyes of an itinerant father and son. The journey they embark upon is fraught with danger, a road strewn with mutilated carcasses, armed cannibals, heads on spikes and only the occasional can of Coca Cola. To call it bleak would be an understatement.

With this in mind, many might have expected a return to the fire-and-damnation Cave of early works like the Bad Seeds’ debut From Her To Eternity, but cannily it’s the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness that really sets this soundtrack apart. The film may be cheerless but there are smatterings of hope that make it such a compulsive experience, and it is often these brief moments where Cave and Ellis lift us.

The title track itself is beautiful, foreboding, recalling the haunting – and now unjustly overlooked – No More Shall We Part, the album where Warren Ellis first truly came to prominence as a core Bad Seed. If the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which the pair recorded in the intervening years between Hillcoat’s films) felt a little like they were going through the motions and regurgitating ideas, here they seem to have got it just right. The cinematography is simple and so too is the soundtrack. A malnourished Viggo Mortensen and his frightened son are set against a desolate, rugged and unforgiving terrain, and the soundtrack cleverly compliments it with minimal instrumentation, spaced piano notes, faint, mournful violin and the occasional discordant accordion.

Other tracks, given generic working titles like ‘Memory’ and ‘Storytime’ are intuitive to cinema’s demands, conjuring wonder and awe, and being both suitably evocative in 5.1 surround sound or just with a pair of stereo speakers. To counter all this peripatetic gorgeousness are a couple of tracks that clatter their way through two of the most memorable scenes in the film, ‘The Cannibals’ and ‘The House’. The former employs primal drums and random top end violin stabs which sound like one imagines madness might; the dissonant bellow of pipes underneath brings to mind the image of flies dancing on rotting flesh. The latter creeps up stealthily, turning into a frantic noise track thick with fear and adrenaline, it’s not a million miles away from a group such as Liars.

Where so many soundtracks fall down is that they either work as fragmented incidental accompaniments or they stand as great pieces of music that are irreconcilable with the action, but The Road manages both.

Click here to read our interview with Warren Ellis on The Road and the trials and tribulations of soundtracking

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