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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Silva Screen Records Ltd.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall



Exceptional, intelligent, beautiful creation for Malick's latest visual feast 


The great Terrence Malick has suddenly become prolific in his old age, with the last decade seeing him make no fewer than two films.  He is one of the most revered of all filmmakers, rightly so; he makes what I would call pure cinema, doing things that just couldn't be done anywhere else.  He doesn't try to tell a narrative which goes from Point A to Point B (which distinguishes him from virtually everyone else, for a start) but instead tries to make an intellectual statement using visuals and sound, trying to build a dramatic arc in there somewhere.  His first three films were all breathtaking to look at, but perhaps became increasingly more frustrating to watch, with each one being more an act of "visual poetry" than anything else.  Stupendous stuff, but not for your regular filmgoer.  However, even the director's most devoted fans have found their patience tested with The New World, which is meant to be a telling of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith ("Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?" as Alan Menken might ask).  For the most part it achieves staggering visual stimulus, but little else.

Malick has taken different approaches with the music in each of his films.  Badlands didn't really have a score at all, but its use of Orff is brilliant; Days of Heaven featured a stunning score by Ennio Morricone, but the film saw Saint-Saens tracked in at every opportunity; The Thin Red Line featured Hans Zimmer's most impressive score, but the composer had to labour hard to get there, recording no less than five and a half hour's music for a film that ran less than half that, so the director could pick and choose his pieces.  It was widely reported that Zimmer had been hired to score The New World, but that wasn't to be, and when a composer was announced it turned out to be the highly-unlikely figure of James Horner, about the last person I would have thought of.  Horner did not have a happy experience on the film.  He strongly implies this even in his liner notes for the album, and it has been confirmed by some of the instrumental performers on-line since then.  The film itself doesn't really feature much of Horner's music, despite the enormous amount of time he spent creating it, with Malick instead tracking in Wagner and Mozart (a somewhat similar situation to Days of Heaven), and to make matters worse, Horner had been forced to constantly rewrite his score as scenes got re-edited, with the director sometimes presenting him with a scene to score, before deciding that he would rather Horner wrote music so the scene could be cut to it, before changing his mind back again, and so on.

Regardless of the politics, Horner has crafted a simply brilliant piece of music, 80 minutes of which are presented on this CD.  The album opens with the sound of gentle birdsong before Horner's main theme is introduced, and a sweeping one it is too.  Never melodramatic or over-the-top, Horner manages to avoid over-egging the pudding despite the swelling strings.  For the most part the strings remain singularly unswelling, though, which is why this will certainly not be a score for everyone.  It's one of the most subtle and considered scores the composer's ever penned, eschewing theatrics for a genuinely pensive and thoughtful listening experience which has clearly been designed at some considerable length.  Horner creates the perfect gentle atmosphere, with the gentle piano solos, fluttering reeds and twinkling synths conveying the calm beauty of America as it was then with absolute perfection; it is impossible to listen to it and not think of the wind flowing through a meadow, or something like that (which isn't too surprising, since the film is dominated by shots of wind flowing through meadows).

The first half of the album is dominated by such fluttering beauty, culminating in the gorgeous "Of the Forest", in which the sampled birdsong and the like is reintroduced (Morricone used an identical idea in Days of Heaven, coincidentally or otherwise).  This change a little after that, with the first real signs of human participation coming in "Pocahontas and Smith", reprising the main theme from the opening cue and developing it into something else entirely.  It clearly conveys a sense of "impossible love", and is very attractive.  For sure, it resembles Braveheart, as everyone has been at great pains to point out, but not nearly so much as other scores (by Horner and others) have done.  It works brilliantly in the context and this instance is considerably more a case of the composer simply having a genuine style of his own rather than any sort of self-borrowing.  This feeling of forbidden love is continued in the very lengthy "Forbidden Corn", which sees the piano twinkling about all around a gentle wind solo, before the love theme gets an even more tragic arrangement than before.  It really is exceptionally beautiful.  Later on, the main theme returns in a gentle piano-and-strings arrangement which once more is highly impressive.  The more romantic midsection of the album ends with "Rolfe Proposes", dominated by a piano solo which is brimming with both hope and loss at the same time.

Things take a far darker turn in "Winter - Battle", another lengthy piece, which opens with bass-laden synth material juxtaposed with beautiful wordless vocals performed by Kiwi crooner Hayley Westenra.  (Westenra also appears on several other tracks, frequently accompanied by a synth choir, in a device which sounds very similar to what Horner did with Charlotte Church on A Beautiful Mind; and it's just as effective here.)  About three minutes in, a sudden crashing of percussion introduces the slow-motion action music, which is effective and, despite the vast change of direction, never seems that out of place with the rest of the score.  It's also the only real point in the album that Horner offers music to suggest the Native Americans who are so pivotal to the story (it's certainly not Thunderheart!)  What sounds like synthesised bagpipes in the middle are a little jarring at first, but soon seem to be an obvious part of the score's palette on repeated listens.  The dramatically-entitled "All is Lost" pretty much does all you might expect, with the strings suddenly swelling for the first time since the opening cue, with a wonderfully beautiful presentation of the main theme, housed in the most tragic of arrangements.  The score ends with another lengthy piece, the ten-minute "A Dark Cloud is Forever Lifted", with Horner recapping much of the territory he has visited during the score to great effect.  After this is a song based around his main theme, with Westenra again singing (this time with words!) "Listen to the Wind".

This is a wonderful album, Horner's most impressive in a while.  It will certainly not appeal to everyone, as has already been evidenced by fan reaction, but those who appreciate Horner's gifts for melody and for "nailing the moment" with perfection will surely be lost with admiration.  In broad terms, the Horner score it most resembles is The Spitfire Grill, but it has none of that score's folksy elements, with the composer relying instead on skilled orchestration and precise composition to conjure up a roughly similar sort of feeling.  For sure, it is a very long way away from the all-action scores with which Horner made his name (and which remain his greatest achievements), but in terms of his long-lined, modern approach, this is one of his very best.  It's a shame (and, I imagine, a unique experience for Horner) that most of it was dropped from the film, and I guess those people who saw the film, loved the music and went and bought the soundtrack album as a result will be disappointed; but in purely musical terms, it's a real treat, and the sort of score that can be listened to over and over again and always offer up something new to the listener.

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  1. The New World (5:22)
  2. First Landing (4:45)
  3. A Flame Within (4:05)
  4. An Apparition in the Fields (3:42)
  5. Journey Upriver (4:16)
  6. Of the Forest (6:55)
  7. Pocahontas and Smith (3:41)
  8. Forbidden Corn (11:00)
  9. Rolfe Proposes (4:31)
  10. Winter - Battle (8:28)
  11. All Is Lost (8:14)
  12. A Dark Cloud is Forever Lifted (9:55)
  13. Listen to the Wind Hayley Westenra (4:37)