It seems inevitable that soundtrack work would become a focus of Nick Cave‘s musical output. From his earliest material with the Birthday Party, Cave has favored narrative songwriting and melodramatic atmosphere. The cinematic tendencies in Cave’s work began to fully cohere once his collaboration with Warren Ellis — who began recording with the Bad Seeds in 1995 and also plays in Grinderman — reached maturity with the release of the soundtrack to 2005’s The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat. Hillcoat also helms The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel about the human spirit’s struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The Road is an epic film with an intimate focus, the story of a boy and his father struggling to survive against a backdrop of ravaged nature, roving cannibal gangs, and a pervasive atmosphere of loss. The music is not as complex as an orchestral score: Ellis’ violin and Cave’s piano are often the only instruments. Certain themes develop, including a piano part introduced on the first track, “Home,” which serves as an anchor for the more plaintive passages.
The Road doesn’t rely on a simplistic soft/loud dynamic. Instead, passages such as “The House” (a harrowing sequence in the film) begin sedately enough but seamlessly transform into a terrifying racket. These shifts in tone are often accomplished through the unexpected deployment of percussive elements, a jarring contrast to the understated instrumentation that dominates most of the record. Moments like these, and there are a fair share of them, are the most memorable parts of The Road. Much of the album is what you would expect from a score — mood music, tailored to enhance the images on-screen rather than stand on their own.
For Nick Cave diehards, The Road is a must, a refinement of his more introspective tendencies and an evolution of his collaboration with Warren Ellis. Indeed, some of The Road’s self-consciously epic moments suggest a stripped-down Dirty Three. Enthusiasts of the film will find much to enjoy here; the record elicits vivid memories of the movie without necessitating a return visit to the picture’s oppressive and emotionally draining world. For casual fans of Cave and those who missed the movie, The Road is merely a curiosity. Those listeners would be better served by the recently released White Lunar, an attractively priced survey of Cave and Ellis’ soundtrack work that includes selections from The Road.