Jonny Greenwood: Bodysongby Todd Simmons
Jonny Greenwood has always been adept at crafting moody, cinematic music. As the lead guitarist and gadget-master of Radiohead, he’s helped to create songs like "Exit Music for a Film" and "Motion Picture Soundtrack." Now he’s indulged his filmic instincts even further with the compelling score to Bodysong, a British documentary about the cycle of life.
Regarding the scoring of the film, Greenwood explained to Billboard magazine, "A normal film tends to have two or three melodies repeated over and over. So one of the hardest parts [of this project] was knowing you couldn't have the same themes or music coming back in after half an hour, because the whole idea of this film is that there is no repetition."
And he’s succeeded. There are myriad contrasting sounds and themes on this record, yet it feels cohesive enough to be a score for one film. It’s eclectic without feeling erratic.
Greenwood has been associated with the guitar since he first taught himself to play the instrument listening to Pixies records. But at this point it seems as though he no longer considers himself a "guitarist"— he’s a musician who happens to play guitar. It was partly at Greenwood’s insistence that, for 2000’s Kid A, Radiohead shelved the traditional rock approach to making music. For that record, Greenwood all but abandoned his guitar and instead concentrated on turning knobs, working sequencers, playing piano, and looping samples— a radical transition for a band with such well-established rock credentials. Refusing to record the expected sequel to the landmark O.K. Computer, Radiohead deconstructed the entire process and created a truly contemporary record.
For the time being, Greenwood has abandoned rock and roll altogether. On Bodysong the guitar appears on a mere two tracks; most of the album features the classical stylings of the Emperor String Quartet. The record opens with a piece that seems like a cross between Amnesiac-era Radiohead and the legendary New York street-musician/ composer Moondog (whose influence appears throughout this soundtrack). "Moon Trills" sounds like a hovering spaceship with engine trouble straining to break through the atmosphere. A heaving, minor-chord piano line underscores the action, creating a beautiful and haunting piece of sound.
"Moon Mall" opens with the reverberating twang of spaghetti-western guitar and proceeds to emulate the clamor of a robot-operating room with metallic clanks and bleeps. In "Covergence," various percussion sounds accumulate, building momentum and spilling into chaos as an industrial kitchen appears to be torn apart by misanthropic tribesmen. It is a strange cacophony, a marching tune for an army of lunatics.
There are strings and horns on "Splitter," a wild, barreling jazz piece reminiscent of Kid A’s "National Anthem" that, like most of the album, contains no guitar. "Nudnik Headache" is a plodding drum-and-bass invention with its wheels stuck in the mire.
"24 hour Charleston" (the only track on which another member of Radiohead appears, with Jonny’s brother Colin on bass) feels as if it may lift off into space or plummet into a ditch at any moment, a banjo tweaking alongside the throbbing bass line. "Milkdrops from Heaven" is a cosmic jazz number with rollicking drums, standup bass, and trumpet. It eventually breaks down into pandemonium, like clowns circling a tiny car, fighting for the door. Then— boom!— it’s a smoky jazz tune again.
Bodysong reveals the influence Greenwood has had on the shaping of Radiohead’s music. He’s skilled at creating eerie and deeply affecting changes in tone from moment to moment. Without the "restriction" of accommodating a vocal track, he has found the freedom to follow some even wilder impulses. He conjures a sense of foreboding here that keeps the listener hovering on the brink in anticipation.
There is little that a musician in Greenwood’s shoes couldn’t tackle at this point in his career: Who’s going to red-light a guy with Radiohead’s critical and commercial track record? Yet, instead of fronting "the Jonny Greenwood Band," he has seized the opportunity to further explore the wider world of sound, song structure, and production. Bodysong, a hallucinatory collection of strange noises and haunting undercurrents, is another example of Greenwood’s refusal to stay on any predictable career path. He has created a fascinating score that stands on its own and resonates with the madness of life.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.