Director David Lynch’s return to the town of Twin Peaks is accompanied by soundtracks to match its mystery
Examining Twin Peaks' Lynchian Americana soundtrack
The film director David Lynch is a curator of the American face. Think of a male lead in a Lynch production and you probably think less of an actor’s name – these would include Justin Theroux, Balthazar Getty, Kyle MacLachlan and the late Harry Dean Stanton – and more of a family resemblance. Dark and handsome, though not in an obvious fashion. The nose possibly bruised from a fight. The hair apt to be slicked back, as if styled in an imagined 1950s scenario.
The phrase “Lynchian” has become a bit of a cliche – generally meaning a piece of art in which there is a certain domestic unease – but when it applies to the director’s choices about what we hear, it has a couple of useful applications. There’s his use of sound design – from throbbing air conditioners and ambient machine hum, to the wind in the trees. More accessibly, perhaps, there’s also his affection for the reverberating plushness of the record productions of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The keening melancholy of a Roy Orbison ballad like In Dreams is an obvious starting point. Probably the definitive “Lynchian” song, however, comes not from the 1950s but the late 1980s – and Chris Isaak’s magnificent Wicked Game, which featured on the soundtrack of Lynch’s movie Wild at Heart. Isaak, very much the owner of a Lynch sort of face, later appeared as an FBI agent in the Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk with Me. The director creates a world full of references and callbacks – and likewise calls back the collaborators who instinctively get it.
It was probably the opening scene of the 1986 film Blue Velvet when it became obvious how Lynch’s use of music was helping him to unlock American archetypes. The movie opens on a man who collapses by his white picket fence, suffering a stroke, while the film’s haunting title song (a 1963 hit for Bobby Vinton) still plays in the background. The song fades and is replaced by the slurping and sucking of bugs feasting in the soil.
It is in this ecology of a pristine surface with something sinister beneath that Lynch thrives, and to which he always returns. Twin Peaks (1990-91), a television series conceived by Lynch and writer Mark Frost focused on an apparently wholesome community surrounded by spectacular forest scenery. When homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found murdered however, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, (Kyle MacLachlan) investigates – and discovers that the town is in fact a confluence point for dark forces, illegal activity and unexplained phenomena. The town’s shifting moods were measured in its music, which could change effortlessly from light to dark, from the kind of quirky synthesizer jazz that may still be playing in the lounge of some forgotten Cincinnati business hotel, to a stirring synthetic melancholy.
Lynch himself has released two solo albums of strange “modern blues”, and they are an interesting adjunct to his body of work. In Twin Peaks, though, music is indivisibly part of the whole. There’s a guileless and charming sequence in the meandering second season in which motorcyclist James Hurley plays Just You, an eerie guitar ballad reminiscent of Orbison, while Laura Palmer’s cousin Maddy and her friend Donna provide backing vocals. At the Roadhouse, the town’s occasionally sinister nightspot, meanwhile, one flabbergasting scene happens during a set by Julee Cruise, a singer whose tender whispering was first used in Blue Velvet.
As the band plays, Agent Cooper becomes mesmerised. The band cease playing, the crowd freeze in their dancing, and Cooper receives a vision from a kindly giant, warning him that the evil that lurks in the town has once again stirred. “It is happening again,” the giant says.
“It is happening again…” were key words in the pre-promotion of the new Lynch/Frost series: Twin Peaks: The Return. In the show, we journey with Agent Dale Cooper back to present-day Twin Peaks after his 25 year imprisonment in the “Black Lodge” – a journey where he is forced to contend with his own evil doppelganger, the diametric bad to Cooper’s good. It’s also happening again at the Bang Bang Bar – as the Roadhouse is now more prominently named.
These days this isn’t only a local bar, it’s a hip, edgy nightspot where a band plays in every episode. Here Lynch is the promoter, booking acts who reflect his aesthetic back at him. Right now you can buy two very good albums from the series. Twin Peaks: (Music from the Limited Event Series) collects all the tracks from the bar, from the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails to an enchanted performance of Just You by James Marshall, the actor who performed it 25 years previously.
There is some lovely music on here. But in the same way as you wonder what Marshall might have been up to since he was last in a Lynch production, you also wonder what life holds outside of the hermetic Lynch system for some of the bands here – is the gift of being “Lynchian” a gilded cage, outside of which a band’s reverberating arrangements won’t play with quite the same drama?
You could never say that of the other release, Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Soundtrack). The 25 years since Twin Peaks last aired have not dimmed the beauty of Badalamenti’s compositions, to which six new pieces are added – the music is as indivisible a part of what the show is as are the score of Jaws or Psycho.
Twin Peaks: The Return is not without Lynch’s love of humour and non sequitur but its central implication – that a government nuclear experiment; the petrochemical industry and big tobacco lie at the root of BOB, the evil entity in Twin Peaks, and implicitly under American society – leads us on a necessarily dark journey.
In the latest series itself, there are silences where formerly there would be Badalamenti’s quirky jazz breaks. When music does appear – as Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims Of Hiroshima does during the eighth episode, to score a four-minute montage of the 1945 Trinity nuclear test – it is staggering, and terrifying. Even among his many extraordinary hours, this episode is Lynch’s most nightmarish and extraordinary hour – as if he has finally isolated the moment on where it all went wrong with modern life, the ultimate sinister revelation under its apparent normality.
The series works on you cumulatively and a little magically, evidence slowly gathering about the director’s likely intention. It seemed completely in keeping with this that when I imported the MP3s of these albums into iTunes, the song which began playing was not the first scheduled track, but a later song by Eddie Vedder, lead singer of the rock band Pearl Jam.
When Vedder stops by the Bang Bang Bar to play the song on the acoustic guitar in the final episode, it’s nothing of the kind. The song is not romantic or reverberating, a big retro production number. Instead, Out Of Sand is scruffy and earnest, more Neil Young than David Lynch. It imagines Vedder as a traveller on the road, much as Agent Cooper has been. He’s trying to do the right thing, the wrong one at his heel like a doppelganger.
The song is conscious of passing time, the sand moving through the hourglass. “Right roads not taken, futures forsaken…” Vedder laments, passionately. “It’s gone…” he concludes. “I am who I am…”
It’s a mature and philosophical song, and it’s probably not overcooking things to suggest that Lynch hears in it not just a man on the road, but something of America’s journey in the past 70-odd years.
Boundless possibilities have narrowed to a single track. Grave decisions have been made. This is where we are. But even if we can’t change the past, perhaps we can still learn from it.