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  • Composed by John Williams
  • Sony Classical / 2012 / 58:46

Focusing on the last months of his life, Lincoln tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (abolishing slavery) and win the civil war.  (A fairly eventful few months, really.)  It has received widespread praise, probably Steven Spielberg’s best-reviewed film since Saving Private Ryan, with Daniel Day-Lewis the subject of particular attention for his performance as the 16th US President.  It’s hard to believe that it’s almost forty years since Spielberg first worked with John Williams (on 1974’s The Sugarland Express) but their collaboration is still going strong; Williams seems to have retired from film scoring in general, making an exception only for the films of the man who is not just his most famous and successful collaborator but also his great friend.

Now in his ninth decade, it would be unreasonable to expect much in the way of daring creativity from the veteran composer, and so it proves in Lincoln, which is both safe and predictable.  Williams reportedly spent much time researching the music of the period and even recorded the score with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Lincoln represented Illinois in the House of Representatives) but if truth be told, the music distinctly echoes other sombre, reverential scores by the composer – aspects of Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and to an extent The Patriot are all here.  It does not contain the kind of dynamic, distinctive music heard in the two presidential biopics he scored previously (JFK and Nixon, both for Oliver Stone) but that’s pretty inevitable, given the subject matter.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

Inevitably, everything Williams does these days is greeted with rapturous applause by the film music community.  He’s earned that through his magnificent career.  This score features all the usual exceptional technique – the handling of the orchestra is incredible.  So I’ll whisper it quietly (since I’ll probably end up getting lynched), but I do wonder whether on this occasion I agree with all the praise that has been lavished on this music – nobody could question the skill of the composition, but not only is it all so familiar-sounding – actually, it all just feels a little passionless to me.  Of course, I’m sure the composer injected all his usual passion into the composing process – but I’m afraid I don’t really feel it – or much of anything while listening to the majority of the album.

The two main themes are both strong – there’s a great nobility to the opening “The People’s House” and real beauty to the theme introduced in “The Purpose of the Amendment” – but except when those themes are being reprised, dare I say, much of the body of the underscore is really rather dull.  There’s such a reverential restraint going on, at times it’s almost like nothing’s happening.  The injection of a couple of tracks of fiddle-and-banjo folk music do very little for me; and even when the strings do swell and cry out how important this is, I tend to find the music somewhat in the shadow of the composer’s great accomplishments of the past.

Now – I’m being deliberately harsh there – Williams has set higher standards than most and I’m judging this against those rather than the standards of mere mortals.  It’s impossible not to be impressed by the technique.  The standalone “Elegy” is very moving, recalling Born on the Fourth of July (but it doesn’t reach those heights).  The core thematic material is actually very strong by anyone else’s standards and when the second theme is explored at length in the six-minute “Freedom’s Call” and in particular the magnificent eleven-minute “The Peterson House and Finale”, you know you’re listening to film music of the highest order, going beyond what any other current film composer could do.

The trouble is, I’m not sure you’d really be missing all that much if you just downloaded a couple of those highlight tracks and gave the rest of the album a miss.  At times it’s like listening to a very polished compositional project of someone trying to sound like John Williams – the ingredients are there yet somehow they don’t quite add up to the sum of their parts, at least as far as I’m concerned.  Reception elsewhere has been nothing short of rapturous and I’m sure the score will get nominated for every award going (and probably win most of them), so perhaps I’m just out on my own here, but for all its qualities (and it certainly has them), I can’t see me returning to Lincoln nearly as often as I do most scores by this wonderful composer.  *** |

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  1. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Sunday 9 December, 2012 at 20:54

    Interesting. I think I somewhat agree with you – this isn’t Williams at his best by any means. But I can’t help getting the feeling that if this score had come from any other composer, you would have given it four stars. I just wrote a review for Tracksounds saying essentially the same as you did (perhaps a little kinder), but I did give it those four stars at the end. Admit it – if Tyler Bates or Ramin Djawadi or hell, even someone like Joel McNeely had produced this exact music, that’s how much you’d have given it. And I feel that every score ought to be judged on its own merits, and not lose marks due to unreasonably high expectations.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 9 December, 2012 at 21:28

      To be honest Edmund, I feel almost the opposite. Had it not been a Williams score for a Spielberg film, I doubt the music would have got much attention at all.

  2. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Sunday 9 December, 2012 at 21:01

    I agree with you. It’s a “worthy” score but not a “great” one. I’ve always had more affinity for Williams’ fantasy and adventure scores, though, as compared to his somber and respectful drama ones.

  3. Josh (Reply) on Sunday 9 December, 2012 at 23:05

    After listening to it a few times, the only thing I find I need is that amazing finale piece.

  4. Erik Woods (Reply) on Monday 10 December, 2012 at 15:03

    Where is Williams loosing the most marks for in your rating? Is it because he was being so safe and predictable?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 10 December, 2012 at 21:01

      Erik – nothing in particular – I just didn’t like it as much as I usually like Williams’s music.

  5. Luc Van der Eeken (Reply) on Monday 10 December, 2012 at 17:36

    For once I don’t agree, James. I really think this is an outstanding piece of work. From what I’d heard everybody was saying how subdued and restraint this score was but I found it very powerful and moving. It’s true, nobody composes like this anymore but I think that’s a compliment. But of course we can agree to disagree. As long as he’s giving us music of this magnitude, I’ll be a happy camper.

  6. Howard Hand (Reply) on Friday 10 October, 2014 at 07:11

    Speaking of The Patriot, will we ever see a review? It’s the only 2000’s John Williams score you haven’t covered yet.

  7. Nathan Fleischman (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 05:52

    John Williams also does Star Wars.