Film Soundtrack Review: You Were Never Really Here (2018)

You Were Never Really Here Jonny Greenwood

A flexing of frequencies

In a performance that earned him a best actor award at Cannes last year, Joaquin Phoenix embraces the role of a rugged gunman with a soft heart by the name of Joe. On a steadfast mission to save a senator’s young daughter in the concrete jungle of New York City, he’s supported by a score that leaves no frequency unturned.

Jonny Greenwood hardly needs an introduction. Lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, You Were Never Really Here makes up his eighth score in 15 years, and represents a huge shift in timbre from his stirring orchestrations recently heard in the Golden Globe nominated soundtrack for Phantom Thread.

Musical mood boards

Greenwood pins his avant-garde compositions – supported by eccentric instrumental techniques and angular tempos – to settings and situations in and around around New York, and in doing so introduces the listener to a plethora of sounds, some more conventional than the others.

The non-conventional ones are largely found in the brutalist compositional traits of the strings heard in The Hunt, YWNRH and Votto. Mimicking a ramped up chorus effect found in the arsenal of most record producers, it sounds apparent that this group of players in particular were asked to improvise around the written notation, but without straying more than a few microtones from the score’s wishes. This induces a gritty textural wave of sound – one that effectively in conveys an unnerving atmosphere throughout the bloodstained scenes.

Greenwood goes further with his manipulation of this family of instruments. Using a technique called col legno – where players hit the wood of their bows on the instrument’s strings instead of the hair – he creates a palpable tension in the form of noisy wooden stabs.

In keeping with the Manhattan setting, there is a reliance on heavy industrial electronic sounds, which evoke a sense of urbanity. Tracks like Nausea, Dark Streets and Dark Streets (Reprise) use searing synthesiser sounds mixed with disjointed tempos, which disrupt the pulsating flow of the music, creating a sense of relentless movement similar to the unbounding motives of the protagonist.

Directly camouflaging themselves into the bustling soundworld of New York, strings and electric guitars knell with muscularity, and once blended with processed guitar feedback, emulate the traffic, trains and turbulence of the city to superb effect.

Sonic salvation

Tree Strings is a much needed contrast to the industrialist tendencies heard in the rest of the score. Gone is the hard edge and harsh sounds, now replaced by a stream of minimalism in the form of bird-like strings, underpinned by re-affirming cello strokes. It’s tranquil, emotional, and – as the scene moves into the depths of a lake – remains solely devoted to the beautiful on-screen ritual performed by the mourning protagonist.

You Were Never Really Here is a masterclass in compositional variety: its experimental credentials, combined with nail-biting tension, grip and grind with sonic immediacy, embody the work of an accomplished composer and guitarist who once said he hates guitar solos. And that’s fine by me.

– Alex Weston

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