- Composed by Howard Shore
- WaterTower Music / 2013 / 129m
The middle part of Peter Jackson’s bloated adaptation of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug sees the band of dwarves and a hobbit battling the dragon Smaug to take back the dwarves’ homeland. It’s nothing like a film, lacking both a beginning and an ending, but to be fair nobody could deny how much middle it has. Pacing issues from the first movie continue – some parts still seem to go on interminably, others feel like forced addenda to pad out the running time – but the tone issues are somewhat addressed (no forced, flat humour this time).
Howard Shore’s music for An Unexpected Journey, the first film, is one of the most crushing film music disappointments I can remember. It may have lived in the same sonic realm as his wonderful The Lord of the Rings, but that’s about it – the magic just wasn’t there. It was nice to hear snippets of some of the old themes again, but apart from the wonderful Misty Mountains theme, the new material felt tired and dreary and so joyless, it took me a year to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it enough times to write a review of it. It is only fair to note that a number of Shore’s Middle Earth music devotees continued their devotion and managed to love it, evidently finding things there that weren’t even vaguely apparent to me.
There’s one piece of really good news about The Desolation of Smaug – recorded in Shore’s absence (I am not really sure why), there is a vibrancy and clarity to the recording which was absent from his previous music in this universe. People say they can’t tell that it was the first Middle Earth score not orchestrated and conducted by Shore himself (Conrad Pope filled that dual role instead) and maybe that’s the case, but surely nobody could with a straight face claim they can’t hear the difference in recording. Everything isn’t buried under mud, instrumental lines are so much clearer, there is a life here which makes listening to the super-long album so much easier.
Sadly, a lot of the other issues I had with An Unexpected Journey return in the sequel. Like that score, it was released in two editions – a special edition, running just over two hours, aimed at Shore completists eager to explore the music in as much depth as possible; and a regular edition, running almost as long and nobody’s entirely sure who that one’s aimed at. Those wanting a tightly-produced album which actually functions as a listening experience were again left disappointed.
After sitting through the horrendous opening 22 minutes of the album one could be forgiven for fearing the worst for this score but finally a track of interest arrives, “Flies and Spiders”, which by no coincidence is also the first time the austere seriousness lets up for a minute or two and there is actually the impression for the first time that the listener is allowed to enjoy himself. Not long after, “Feast of Starlight” is a gorgeous piece, a lilting Morricone-style melody sung beautifully by a boy soprano, orchestration for once simple and direct, emotional shackles released. The theme reappears later, just as attractive in “Kingsfoil”.
I love “The Forest River”, the best piece in the score, an action track which sticks with the general dark tone but sees some frantic melodies explode from that backdrop. Its proportions are massive – room-shaking, no doubt – and here Shore achieves what his best music from his original Middle Earth adventures did – compositionally complex (as are even the most humdrum parts of The Hobbit scores) but dramatically rich, emotionally direct and engaging. It’s a pleasure to hear a piece like that, which could sit alongside most of even the finest moments from The Lord of the Rings.
It’s hard to believe that only an hour has passed by the time the second disc starts with “Thrice Welcome”, which for a few bars at least is quite a fun little thing, before the misery sets in again. I quite like “In the Shadow of the Mountain”, which has darting little flashes of colour punctuating the fog and a dashing, almost Herrmannesque romantic grandeur to the strings. “On the Doorstep” is a lengthy piece which meanders for a while but also contains a beautiful, moving little melody, again notable by its simplicity. “Inside Information” is a completely different-sounding piece of action music – indeed, so different does it sound from anything else that it seems really rather incongruous – but on its own terms it’s most entertaining.
“A Liar and a Thief” is a pretty intense piece of action and leads nicely into another of the score’s real highlights, “The Hunters”. It’s ten minutes long and doesn’t maintain its strength throughout, but there are parts of it which are breathlessly exciting – despite being blisteringly dark. The following “Smaug” is even darker and is largely forgettable but there are one or two places where Shore goes unexpectedly avant garde and they are just fantastic. Consistently impressive is “My Armour is Iron” – it’s murky for sure but fast-paced and stylish, aggressive yet satisfying. The album still has a couple of tracks to go – an Ed Sheeran song, “I See Fire”, nice enough without pulling up any trees (and whose melody doesn’t find its way into any of Shore’s score) and then an orchestral finale, “Beyond the Forest”, which is outstanding.
I really don’t understand why The Hobbit scores have been released the way they have and the lack of a properly produced album for the casual (or, to be honest, discerning) listener is very disappointing. But whereas An Unexpected Journey had the wonderful “Misty Mountains” theme, I doubt that more than half an hour or so of the music in the score was all that interesting and I wonder whether a particularly interesting album could have been drawn from it at all; The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t have that memorable theme, but instead it has some very fine set pieces and probably around an hour of music that’s consistently good. That means that overall it’s a distinct step up over its predecessor – it suffers from the same faults but Shore injects that little bit more energy into a higher portion of it. It still needs an album producer to go through it meticulously and chop out the fat, but there’s more than enough here to make it worth persevering, however hard that is at times.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Howard Shore