Latest reviews of new albums:
All the Light We Cannot See

I loved Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See – it very slowly and very delicately tells twin storylines about a young blind girl who moves with her father from Paris to St Malo as Germany occupies France in WWII, and a young German radio engineer who has a lot of doubts about the war – and beautifully culminates in their storylines coming together. Sadly the Netflix adaptation didn’t really do any of this, dumping so much of the build-up that it becomes almost entirely unmoving, which is quite the achievement given the source material.

It would be hard however to say a bad word about James Newton Howard’s music, at least so far as it functions within the show. He certainly got it – his sombre, often restrained approach is just what was needed. The dynamic main theme which opens the album is really very good and the pair of score tracks that close it (before a gorgeous rendition of “Clair de Lune” played by Alison Procter), “Saint-Malo” and “Model City Duet”, are quite exquisitely beautiful – the former plays over a montage of actual images of Saint-Malo during the war and is very moving, the latter is a delightfully light dance between piano and violin (James Ehnes) crafted for the album. These are the two best pieces of music Howard has written for many years and are essential listening for fans of the composer.

James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard

In between the album’s bookends though, it doesn’t really do a lot for me. Even when the composer is as talented as Howard, my heart sinks when I see that an album is as long as this one – 108 minutes. Around 90 of those minutes are made up of very earnest, very sombre music which does precisely what it was supposed to do on screen but is just too much to make an enjoyable listening experience on album.

It’s a shame because there’s a barnstormer of an album hiding in here somewhere – the movingly dramatic “No Trains Left”, the urgent “Finding the Jewels”, the exquisite “Burden” – but these highlights are scattered amongst so much music which is understandably so dark and restrained. I’m not suggesting any of it is bad, just that it is too samey and so draining to listen to, it’s very easy to give up and then miss out on the joys the score has to offer elsewhere.

Before you rush to the post box to send me that letter telling me that I could just create a shorter playlist and will I for the love of god stop moaning about albums being too long, I do realise I could do that if I had the time. Hopefully somebody does have the time and then tells me what the right playlist is because were it an hour shorter I suspect this album would be being talked about as James Newton Howard’s finest in a while. As it is, the highlights are genuinely exceptional but the presentation lets it down.

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  1. Steven (Reply) on Sunday 26 November, 2023 at 16:56

    Here’s my playlist:

    1. Main Title
    2. August 1944
    3. Model City
    4. To the Museum
    5. A Day at the Museum
    6. Retrieving the Jewels
    7. No Trains Left
    8. Burden
    9. A Promise
    10. Thought Destroys Action
    11. Genius is a Gift
    12. Model Building
    13. Ask Me Again
    14. Not Today
    15. The Most Important Light
    16. Liberation
    17. Sea of Flames
    18. Saint-Malo
    19. Model City Duet