The music that accompanies Noah Baumbach's film "The Squid and the
Whale" has a remarkably cohesive mood, given that it spans a variety of
eras and genres, from 1960s folk to 1980s jangle to more contemporary
country-folk. An indefinable bittersweetness permeates all these cuts,
whether the three beautifully dark cuts from lost folkie Bert Jansch, or the
shimmering melancholy of Kate and Anne McGarrigle's "Heart Like a Wheel," or
the sardonic, masterfully crafted "Swimming Song" by Loudon
Wainwright. Even the incidental music scored by Dean Warham is luminously
of a piece with the album, particularly the eerie "Park Slope," which gives
a foretaste of Blossom Dearie's "Figure Eight."
A trio of cuts from Jansch, one of folk music's most innovative guitarists,
sets the soundtrack's tone. "Courting Blues," from Bert Jansch's
home-recorded first album, glows with lovely, minor-key folk figures, while
"The Bright New Year," with its theme of distance between mother and son,
leans more towards blues. "Come Sing Me a Happy Song to Prove We All Can
Get Along the Lumpy, Bumpy, Long & Dusty Road" is one of several driving
songs on the soundtrack, propelled by a lilting, bouncing, twang-infused
Loudon Wainwright III contributes two wonderful songs to the
soundtrack. The melancholy "Lullaby" seems tailor-made for a movie about
family troubles, with its lyrics "Shut up and go to bed/ Put the pillow
under your head/ Sick and tired of all of your worries." "The Swimming
Song" is, if anything, even better. It is one of those songs where the
ostensive subject is a metaphor for something larger, yet so exactly
described and so skillfully executed that you can't see the wires that hold
it up. "How like life swimming is," you're tempted to remark, which is
perhaps the point. Or perhaps the song is really just about swimming.
Though the movie is set in 1986, there are only a couple of songs from that
specific era, and oddly, they feel the most out of place. The Cars'
"Drive" is several degrees slicker and more commercial-sounding than
anything else on the soundtrack, completely breaking an otherwise
well-thought-out flow of sounds. The Feelies' "Let's Go" blends better
with the album's dreamy, diffuse feel, and reminds everyone how great this
now nearly forgotten band was.
Like all soundtracks, this one exists mostly to support a movie, rather
than as a freestanding work of art. Yet to an unusual degree, these songs
are held together by an indefinable feeling. You get the sense that they
were selected with extreme care by someone who identified closely with them.
There's a passage from the movie included in the liner notes, in which the main
character, Walt, explains to a school therapist why he
claimed to have written Pink Floyd's "Hey You" (here very ably covered by
Wareham) when he played it at a school assembly. "I felt I could've
written it... so the fact that it was already written was kind of a
technicality," says the boy. Noah Baumbach and his music consultant Jim
Dunbar may have selected music that was already written for this project,
but it's so cohesive and mood-evoking that that seems like a technicality.