How do you follow up something like DRIVE? It must be a tricky prospect, following up a wildly popular film that shot Ryan Gosling to stardom and had an infectious soundtrack ripped straight from the 1980s. So it’s understandable that director Nicolas Winding Refn did a 180, putting Gosling in a revenge drama set in Thailand, keeping the shocking violence of DRIVE but jettisoning the shocking pink and 80s reverence that accompanied it. Luckily, composer Cliff Martinez also stayed on board, and its his music that scores ONLY GOD FORGIVES.
There’s something that should be made clear right now: ONLY GOD FORGIVES has very few similarities to DRIVE, and while it may work as a gateway drug, there is no feelgood cool 80s vibe here. What is here is essentially a horror score, a nightmarish hallucinatory trip with a suitably surreal edge not far from a certain Lynch, David. The music certainly shares part of its influences with its predecessor – edges of synth recalling John Carpenter and the like – but I doubt it’s going to become a similar mainstream crossover, mainly due to its less accessible atmosphere. But it’s potentially better.
Somewhat suitably given the film’s supposed ultra-violence (another trait it shares with DRIVE), Martinez’ score opens with echoing drums that resemble the footsteps of an approaching monster, with elongated brass blasts and rising strings giving an extreme sense of foreboding. It’s an incredibly effective way to start the album, and absolutely sets the stall out for the remainder of the score. With it Martinez says “stick around, this is going to get interesting”. He’s not wrong.
That’s not to say that the entire score has the same belligerence and intensity. There’s actually a softer side, a contrast that holds a more emotional resonance as opposed to the impulsive brutality that arises often. However, even with the ornate celesta melody of ‘Crystal Checking In’ and the beautiful strings of ‘Crystal and the Bodybuilders’ there are layers to be peeled away, revealing darker elements. Here we sense decadence and sleaze, some of it feels pathetic but also with a veil of sympathy. There are complex feelings, to be sure.
The sleazy side is also found in tracks such as ‘Ask Him Why He Killed My Brother’ with its ethereal strings and the romantic string line in ‘Chang Vision’, giving the score an immediate atmosphere of suspense and mystery befitting a neo-noir. It’s that feel of always having to watch your back, to always look over your shoulder. These sections then bleed into the more intense tracks as the “trip” sense rises into what I guess is almost dance music, with thick pulsing beats you’d expect to hear in a club. But they’re always contrasted with something interesting, such as the electronic wave in ‘Take It Off’ and ‘Bride of Chang’ with its overlaid organ line.
Speaking of club, there are three tracks which almost feel like karaoke. ‘Can’t Forget’ is an off-kilter lounge song, ‘Falling In Love’ is, well, a love song, and ‘You’re My Dream’ – which closes the album – has an almost nursery rhyme melody, over which an aching torch song vocal is placed. The song has an finality to it, a sense of expelled energy that works well as almost a pallete cleanser after the darkness preceding. It’s worth mentioning that all of the songs are sung in Thai, so any attempt at translation here comes directly from deducing the feel of the songs.
And then there’s the real darkness. ‘Ladies Close Your Eyes’ is a monster of a track, eight minutes and two seconds of droning, tribal drums, weird celesta (‘Hedwig’s Theme’ will never sound the same again) and guitar feedback. It’s absolutely threatening and occasionally sickening, with much more of a primal reaction as opposed to emotional. Fight or flight, so to speak.
But the crowning glory is ‘Wanna Fight’, a blistering throwback to the halcyon days of John Carpenter (in association with Alan Howarth) with a fucking awesome ascending/descending synth motif and a counterpoint organ line. It’s hypnotic in its straightforwardness, getting even more hallucinatory when strings echo in and out of the foreground and background, eventually fading only to slam into the off-kilter opening of ‘You’re My Dream’. Mental stuff, really.
Reactions to the film have been divisive to say the least, and it’s not surprising given the almost abstract feel of some of the score and its tendency to go from sleazy karaoke to head-pounding techno. I haven’t seen the film myself, and while as a fan of Refn I am eager to see it, a part of me hopes it meets my expectations so it doesn’t colour the music. But whatever happens with the movie, as an album ONLY GOD FORGIVES is an incredible experience. I can’t wait to hear what Martinez and Refn come up with next.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is out now from Milan Records
Words: Charlie Brigden