Graham Reid | | 2 min read
If there were an apartment block for soundtrack composers, like the old Brill Building of songwriters in New York City, the penthouse suites would have long-term residents like Hans Zimmer (Gladiator to Kung Fu Panda), David Arnold (the recent Bond franchise among others), James Newton Howard (rom-coms to Peter Jackson's King Kong), Hildur Guðnadóttir (A Hijacking, Sicaro, television's Chernobyl, Joker) and the prolific Danny Elfman.
Elfman's long career has included two Spider-man soundtracks and a lengthy association with director Tim Burton (two Batman films, The Nightmare Before Christmas among his scores).
But now he arrives with Big Mess, the first rock album under his own name since 84's So-Lo.
And it is a blockbuster: a double album (18 songs, half a dozen with explicit lyrics) with musical reference points in the industrial-strength metal of Nine Inch Nails, the thrash of Anthrax, recent Gary Numan at his most declamatory and an especially angry pneumatic drill.
Los Angeles-based Elfman addresses the state of his nation on the seductively melodic Choose Your Side where he samples Donald Trump (“It's a great thing that's happening for our country, it's a great day for everybody”) and the lyrics ask, “When did the fear start taking over, when did our brains start shutting down?”.
Big Mess is Elfman's often dyspeptic but always crafted response to the chaos, political dysfunction and social division of recent years.
With strings alongside the rock line-up (drummer Josh Freese has played with Suicidal Tendencies, Nine Inch Nails and Social Distortion, guitarist Ron Finck with NIN), Elfman offers surreptitious menace (In Time “we make our Hell”), gloomy breathing spaces akin to late-period Bowie (True, Dance with the Lemurs, Serious Ground), New Wave pop (Just a Human) and the orchestrated minimalism of Love in the Time of Covid which is underpinned by clattering beats then cut across by searing guitar and distorted vocals.
We Belong which closes the first half is a lovely, if disturbing, piece which could almost be considered a ballad.
Elfman, now 68, got his start in the post-punk/New Wave band Oingo Boingo in the late 70s which ran through a number of line-ups and musical shifts towards alt.rock before splitting in 95. By that time Elfman had scored Pee-wee's Big Adventure for Burton and the Grammy-winning orchestral soundtrack to the director's reboot of Batman (which also spawned Prince's album).
Given his film credits (among them the thrillers Extreme Measures and Instinct), Elfman is no stranger to creating unnerving music and Big Mess opens its white-knuckle ride with the furious, increasingly claustrophobic Sorry : “Your house is on fire, your eyes are empty . . .”.
With Big Mess, Elfman has delivered 70 minutes which can sometimes feel like a beautifully choreographed mugging.
It isn't all bleak in this dystopian world however, on Better Days he whisper-sings, “just in time, the aliens are about to invade us . . .”
What a relief that'll be.
Big Mess is available now on Spotify here