(Paul Thomas Anderson, Warner Brothers, 2014)
Reviewed by Rob Bockman
Some context directed at those to whom Inherent Vice is just the book filed right next to Infinite Jest on the “I Swear I’ll Get to This Soon” shelf: Considered Pynchon’s second-most forgiving novel (depending on where you rate The Crying of Lot 49), 2009’s Inherent Vice is a shaggy seamus-caper about an out-of-his-element and antechronistic P.I. named “Doc” Sportello. Essentially, it’s The Big Lebowski had The Dude’s weakness been white lines instead of White Russians—sloppy and shivery—so director Paul Thomas Anderson’s chilly but expansive style would seem a loose fit for the film adaptation. Nevertheless, here we are, and with a brand-new Johnny Greenwood soundtrack to boot. A veteran of Anderson’s films (and, of course, of Radiohead), Greenwood has collaborated on The Master and There Will Be Blood. Like Doc’s Los Angeles, Greenwood has a harder edge to his compositions beneath the placid immediate impression—an edge that reflects Doc’s out-of-his-element exploits with missing persons, murder, and drug-smuggling.
Inherent Vice, taking place in the wilds of urban California, is a sunny noir—a blanc, if you want—and Greenwood pours it on, using spacious oboe and lugubrious strings that match Sportello’s mindset and undercut the convoluted quadruple-crosses and blackouts of Sportello’s investigation. The Densmore-tinged and spacey “Spooks,” featuring Joanna Newsom’s low-slung (and surprisingly low-register) Beat-boxing, nails the feeling of both Pynchon and Anderson. It’s more ornate than the sparse Blood soundtrack, but still substitutes reserve for Pynchon’s virtuoso mania. Cannily, Greenwood creates an orchestral midcentury sound that calls back to Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, an odd juxtaposition with Sportello’s hallucinatory laissez-faire, but one that plays into both composer and director’s love of stark contrasts. Noir wouldn’t be noir without paranoia—a vibe that’s played up in the frenetic “Adrian Prussia” and “The Chryskylodon Institute,” which use the album’s spare digital effects exceedingly well, creating a twinkling loop that judders like a malfunctioning centrifuge. The dreamy, opiate-attenuated “Golden Fang” is a keeper, as well, full of muted pickings under a surge of thin strings.
Soundtracks are always (one might even say inherently) tricky—divorced of cinematic context, a piece can lose its impact. That said, as in Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice, some soundtracks have impact to spare. So until Inherent Vice comes anywhere close to us (assuming it does—i.e., if the Nick decides to stop showing awards-graspers for the middle-brow set), this is about the best we’re going to do to experience Doc Sportello’s California. Luckily, it’s plenty good enough.
Tracks to Watch: “The Chryskylodon Institute,” “The Golden Fang”
Track to Avoid: Narration-heavy tracks (“Spooks,” “Under the Paving-Stones, the Beach!”) may not hold up for listeners who are unfamiliar with the text. Also, the exceedingly dull “Amethyst.”
Recommended Experiential Setting (RES): Perfect background music when you’ve had too much wine while making dinner and want to indulge in some mild paranoia.