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Broadchurch
  • Composed by Ólafur Arnalds
  • Mercury Classics / 2015 / 53m

The first season of Broadchurch was a bit of a phenomenon in Britain when it was broadcast in 2013.  It’s about a community torn apart when a young boy is found dead on the beach, and isn’t a straightforward whodunnit (though that does play a part) but rather an examination of lives forever altered.  It was obviously inspired by the great Nordic noir series of recent times (The Killing, The Bridge and so on) and is only a shade short of reaching that level, and it does bolster one historic achievement – for the first time I was able to watch something with David Tennant in and not be so irritated by him that I quickly turned off.  2015’s second season wasn’t as good, with absurd courtroom drama as the accused’s trial is documented slightly spoiling the otherwise excellent further twists and turns for the main characters; but was still worth watching.

Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds has provided the music for both seasons and has attracted much praise for his work, deservedly so.  Mercury Classics released an EP of his first season score at the time, running about twenty minutes, and has reprised virtually all of that material and added some selections from the second season for this full-length album.  The music works functionally very well within the show, its slightly austere melancholia a perfect match to the frequently rather grim goings on; I did have my doubts about how much I would like it out of context, but it turns out I needn’t have worried.

Ólafur Arnalds

Ólafur Arnalds

The first track is called “Main Theme”, but the use of the second word is somewhat deceptive; rather it’s like a “main mood” kind of piece, a bleak wash of synths pierced briefly by a delicate piano solo before a string quartet takes over the same two-note melody, extremely simple but devastatingly effective in its conveyance of sadness.  Percussion brings a dramatic thrust to the second half of the cue, a sense of movement and shifting sands.  That ensemble – string quartet, piano and synths – is used for the entire score.

Two themes bookend the rest of the album and in some ways are like two sides of the same coin.  “Danny” (the young boy killed) is a hauntingly bleak piece, so profoundly sad, but with fragments of a melody coming and going like memories.  “Beth’s Theme” (for his mother) is arguably the heart and soul of not just the music but the show itself, so perfect at capturing the character’s tragic loss and tension at having to continue with her own life.  It’s a thing of outstanding beauty.

Each season has seen an outstanding song performed by Arnór Dan over the end credits.  The first season’s “So Close” features lyrics by the show’s creator intended to hint at the identity of the killer, and it’s very much a continuation of the style of the score, the vocal just an additional layer of hypnosis.  The second season’s “So Far” is similar in nature, with the drama perhaps even more heightened.

In between, pretty much every track brings something of note to the table.  “The Journey”, which at seven minutes the album’s longest piece and with its driving percussion easily its most urgent.  An ever-growing synth growl builds up considerable darkness as the track culminates.  “Suspects” seems to have just a glimmer of light in it, of hope; it’s buried amongst charred ruins but it does briefly shine and the effect is wonderful, so skilfully done.  “What Did They Ask You?” is a chilling rumination; contrasted with “She’s Your Mother”, which incorporates parts of “So Close” (sans vocal) to great effect.

“Excavating the Past” is a slow burner of a piece, but one which does build up a bit of a head of steam, with a particularly effective passage as synthesised sounds seem to echo from one side of the sonic range to the other, bringing a sense of being enveloped.  “The Meeting” by contrast starts very delicately, but a feeling of suspense grows through the piece, ultimately chilling down to the bone.  In “Broken” there is a sense of rugged determination which builds, the strings being gradually layered over the piano.  Finally there’s the brief “I’m Not the Guilty One”, which is actually some of the most harrowing music on the album, with nary a melody in sight.

Broadchurch the show is pretty miserable stuff but completely compelling; while the music has at its heart that misery, it is able to build its own narrative when heard in this form and the morsels of hope Arnalds offers within it ensure the listening experience is just as compelling as the viewing one.  I’ve been to Iceland and this music is so evocative of that unique country, the composer’s home, so bleak in many ways and yet at the same time so outstandingly beautiful.  The album’s seriously impressive, probably not one you’ll put on if you need cheering up but one certainly worthy of considerable attention.

Rating: **** 1/2

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  1. JimM on Wednesday 24 June, 2015 at 14:07

    I have to be honest this is one of the most eerily powerful albums i have listened to in a long while. It grabs you with its lean textures and sucks you right in. I really loved this album thanks for the glowing recommendation James

  2. T. Webb on Monday 21 March, 2016 at 23:33

    I didn’t notice that you had reviewed this. The music of “Broachurch” really sets the tone for the show, and is both haunting and very moving. Exceptional stuff.