Thursday, October 6, 2011

David Bowie: W.L.'s Artist Of The Month Continues With The Labyrinth Soundtrack!

The Good: Fun music, Decent voice
The Bad: Short, Often dependent upon the film for full enjoyment
The Basics: Short and erratically mixing instrumentals and vocal tracks, Labyrinth is a good, but not great, soundtrack album which kicks off my monthlong study of the works of David Bowie!

Having completed Ella Fitzgerald as my Artist Of The Month and oh so many of my reviews contained some variation on the phrase "Ella Fitzgerald is not so much an artist as she is a performer," there is some joy that comes with the advent of October and the restoration of my standards for Artist Of The Month. This is not to say that I did not enjoy Ella Fitzgerald month or learn a lot from it or even write reviews which might be valuable to my readers. Still, the repetition of standards throughout that month became tiresome even - perhaps especially! - to me. So, with October comes a new Artist Of The Month and I am proud to announce that David Bowie is the artist I have selected as my male Artist Of The Month!

David Bowie, whom my wife and I managed not to stalk while we were in New York City as part of our engagement trip, is a favorite of my wife and one who I have had very limited experiences with in terms of listening to his works. In fact, up until now, I have only listened to and reviewed The Best Of Bowie (here!) and the DVD video anthology of the same. But when I was defining my playlist for this year as last year wound down, I knew I would win some serious points with my fiance by immersing myself in a study of Bowie and that's why we do so many things, isn't it? The irony here is that I am beginning my month of Bowie with one of his few collaborative albums, the soundtrack to the film Labyrinth (the film is reviewed here!). It is worth noting that this is a review of the soundtrack, not the film.

That said, with only a dozen songs clocking in at 43:33, Labyrinth is a collaborative work between composer Trevor Jones and superstar rocker David Bowie. Associated with the film Labyrinth, the album is a mix of rock and roll dance songs written by David Bowie and instrumental songs composed by Jones. The mix is more or less even, with the two collaborating on the first song, then Jones writing six of the songs and Bowie going solo on the remaining five. Given that it was a studio album produced to link with the film, it is questionable how much either artist had in the way of true creative freedom.

Given that, Labyrinth is a decent mix of the instrumental and lyrical tracks with the styles generally alternating. Because most people who will want the soundtrack will be David Bowie fans, I shall gloss over much of the work of Trevor Jones. Jones creates six modern tracks that are essentially an early '80s soundtrack. He utilizes guitars and saxophones, most notably on "Hallucination" and outside "Hallucination" the songs say little. In other words, "Hallucination" creates an auditory experience that many might liken to a hallucination or a drug trip that is relaxed and a strange musical journey.

But other Jones songs on the album hold together less well outside the context. "Sarah" is hardly a cohesive enough theme to be truly considered memorable. In a film, characters may be assigned instruments, melodies or full themes to play off where they are and who they are in a film. "Sarah" is not carried through in any memorable or recognizable way the other musical tracks by Jones to help listeners to just the soundtrack feel like they are experiencing a character's journey. Ironically, there is more of a musical link from "Hallucination" to "As The World Falls Down" - similar instruments, etc. - than there is between "Sarah" and any of the tracks where her character is supposed to be involved in resolving the action. Tracks like "Home At Last" lack a musical tie to make the listener feel like they are getting a story from the soundtrack. Jones and Bowie tend to use similar instrumentation - guitars, keyboards, sax, and limited percussion - to make the album sound generally cohesive, though. Most of Jones's tracks are deep chords, with a sense of drama and grandeur, which Bowie tends to pick up in his track. Jones gets some sense of movement into the tempo of his songs more than Bowie gets, though.

The problem most listeners who have never seen Labyrinth will have - and I write with some authority in this regard as I saw the movie once, shortly after it came out on home video and not since (something my wife informs me we will be rectifying quite soon!) - is that the soundtrack is almost entirely dependent upon the film for comprehension and enjoyment. Unlike an opera where the story is told fairly purely through the music and songs, Labyrinth has musical interludes and introductions, but track to track, it hardly tells the story of Sarah and her journey to save her brother from the Goblin King. Instead, it is an eclectic mix of short instrumentals or dance songs that might be fun, but lack real substance outside the context of the film.

Take, for example, "Chilly Down." This absurd song is essentially a dance number and there is some joy in reviewing the soundtrack independent of the film in that I can say that listeners will have no real idea what is going on. Instead, it just seems silly with its lines "When you think this wild chilly down, chilly down with fire gang (hey, I'm a wild child!) / Hang tall with the fire (woh, walk tall) / Good times, bad moves (yeah) /When you think this wild chilly down, chilly down (ha ha) /Live and crazy, plainly lazy / High rollin', funky strollin' / Ball playin', hip swayin' / Trouble makin', booty shakin' / Dribblin', passin', jumpin', bouncin' . . ." ("Chilly Down"). Reading the lines is hard to grasp what the point is other than just making something that is fun and rhymy for a sense of movement.

This is not to say Bowie mortgages substance for style throughout. Far from it, outside of "Chilly Down" and "Magic Dance," which are terribly tied to the film Labyrinth, Bowie's songs contain a universal quality that he is known for. Indeed, the poetry of "As The World Falls Down," like "There's such a sad love / Deep in your eyes. / A kind of pale jewel / Open and closed / Within your eyes. / I'll place the sky / Within your eyes. / There's such a fooled heart / Beatin' so fast / In search of new dreams. / A love that will last / Within your heart. / I'll place the moon / Within your heart" while more dramatic than some of Bowie's metaphors, are at least as meaningful as many of his best known songs. Bowie maintains a high level of quality with his lyrics when possible and poetically, it is hard to see why those associated with the film would have picked Bowie if they didn't want to tap his brain for lines like those.

On Labyrinth, Bowie maintains a fairly safe vocal range for himself. He goes a little deeper at times to create an emotive sense of menace for his Goblin King persona, but otherwise, he is in a slightly higher, more comfortable range that is instantly recognizable as David Bowie. When he sings "Everything I've done, / I've done for you. / I move the stars for no one. / You've run so long. / You've run so far. / Your eyes can be so cruel, / Just as I can be so cruel, /Oh I do believe in you. / Yes I do" ("Within You") it is unmistakably David Bowie.

But for those looking for great and essential Bowie, this is a tough sell. The enjoyment and greatness of "Within You" and "As The World Falls Down" hardly hold a candle to the absurdity of "Chilly Down" and "Magic Dance." "Underground" is essentially on the album twice and with the rest of the tracks being Trevor Jones's, it is both short and not distinctly Bowie. Still, there are few - if any - compilations of Bowie's that include the Labyrinth works, making it essential to those who are fans of Bowie's works.

And I have been ordered to inform my readers that were my wife reviewing it (or, honestly, any Bowie album in all likelihood!), Labyrinth would be a 10 as a perfect soundtrack. Objectively viewed by one who is more of a scholar than a stalking fan, Labyrinth is a musically enjoyable and diverting soundtrack, but hardly a must-have on everyone's shelf.

The best track is "As The World Falls Down," the low point is the cacophony that is "The Goblin Battle."

For other male former Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out:
Opiate - Tool
It Ain't Easy: Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
Actually (2-disc) - Pet Shop Boys


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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