A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.

This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change. It has since been expanded as a concept, as Neal Shaffer takes on a study of album covers over at Leftwich.

Executive Producers: Wim Wenders & Jonathan Taplin
Executive Music Producers: Gary Goetzman & Sharon Boyle
Label: Warner Bros.

Music nerds know the value of a good compilation. In fact, I'm surprised more of us don't give up the dream of being in a band and instead start dreaming about putting together the greatest comps of all the time. What else have all those mixed tapes and CDs been for if not a dry run for our stab at glory? A slot in the "Various Artists" section!

There is a tricky art to putting these things together, be it a loose gathering of current hits or a themed release or a soundtrack. Sure, it seems easy to create a good collection. Throw a bunch of songs together, and if the material is good enough, people will listen to it. Yet, arrange the songs in the right way, and you've got yourself a bonafide record. Even the producers of the Now! series understand that. Do a little reading up on them. They have a very specific formula for how they sequence the songs on each disc. Despite how slapdash they might appear, they are thinking about how the Now! CDs will sound at a party, how they will roll through the night.

The most impressive compilations, however, are the ones where the producer manages to pull together a host of disparate groups and create an album that sounds like a real album. This is what German film director Wim Wenders did when he created the soundtrack to his film Until the End of the World.

Released in 1991, Until the End of the World predates the concept of an "executive album producer," where one hotshot record guy is hired to create new material for the sole purpose of shifting units, like Trent Reznor doing Lost Highway or Missy Elliot and Timbaland on Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Until the End of the World isn't a gimmick album, either, where there is a common approach adopted for all the songs, like pairing up hard rock bands with rappers and techno artists the way they did for Spawn or Blade II. No, this disc is an old fashioned soundtrack album. Until the End of the World is a collection of songs given to Wenders for use as musical cues in the actual film.

It's hard to say what set the tone for the album. There are four interlude pieces taken from Graeme Revell's musical score, but the rest of the songs are from all over the place. Revell's short pieces do end up tying the elements together, but were they given to the bands as an indication of what to go for, or was it just smart choosing on Wenders' part when he asked the bands to participate? Of the fifteen songs, only one--U2's title track--ended up appearing on an album that predated the soundtrack. Later, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds would end up using their songs on albums or, more commonly, as B-sides, but this disc was the first place to get them. I doubt that Revell switched his gears to match what Wenders collected. All that has been publicly acknowledged is that Wenders asked each artist to consider what they thought their music might sound like in the far-flung future of 1999. Surely, that would lead to widely varied opinions. So, what then?

Well, I kind of set myself up with a question there that I don't know how to answer. And even if I did, it would likely distract us from the true idea here. The success of the Until the End of the World soundtrack album is the arrangement of the material, regardless of how it was created. It's good that I mentioned the Revell pieces, as they divide the record up into three sides, their titles providing a cue for the theme of each section.

The album begins with Revell's "Opening Titles," designed to lead us into the experience. A two-minute snippet with melancholy strings, chanting, and whale cries, it folds into our first entry from an outside band: "Sax & Violins" by Talking Heads. Fittingly, the opening lines of "Sax & Violins" are, "Falling falling/ Gonna drop like a stone/ I'm falling through the atmosphere." Wenders' film is a futuristic experience, and lyrically we are being told that the music for the film is going to be something otherworldly, as well. Talking Heads have provided Wenders with a song that is equal in merit to the U2 contribution as a theme song. "Sax & Violins" speaks of being on the run, of traveling and looking for home, and provides the credo "Love keeps us together/ Love will keep us alive." Love will also, we're told, "drive us insane."

Until the End of the World is a road trip, and the soundtrack becomes a journey, as well. A lot of the early songs are about getting things going. Neneh Cherry's song is actually called "Move With Me (Dub)," and "The Adversary" by Crime & the City Solution compels the listener to "run to me." Along with this feeling of movement, there is a sense of seasons--and hence, time--passing, like on Julee Cruise's cover of "Summer Kisses, Winter Tears" or Elvis Costello doing a spin on "Days" from the Kinks. Each comes with a sense of loss, of romance fading and disconnection. This becomes most apparent on R.E.M.'s "Fretless," with its refrain of "Don't talk to me about being alone," which eventually breaks down into just "Don't talk to me."

This is very much the predicament of the film's heroine, Claire, who must get out of her lonely, claustrophobic life to find something new, to reconnect to the world, to reconnect to her heart. Thus, these first eight songs lead us to "Claire's Theme." Only, this very personal snippet breaks into something larger. The second movement of Until the End of the World takes on a mortal urgency. The three songs here in this category are concerned with the violence inherent in the film's title: the end of life as we know it and everything else along with it.

Nick Cave leads with "(I'll Love You) Till the End of the World," a saloon sing-along about a man in love caught up in a violent city, trying to escape to get back to his soulmate, with her "eyes black as coal and [her] long, dark curls." The song has one of my favorite descriptive lines of all time: "this town full of men with big mouths and no guts." (I like to use that these days to cheekily explain why I won't date smart girls anymore. They have big mouths and no guts. Har!) The tune creates a sense of urgency, it speeds up the trip. The car is powered by love, but it has to be strong enough, or only death remains. Patti and Fred Smith continue this on "It Takes Time."

"...we are swept to encircle dawn
Strapped in a low car
Racing thru silence
Trumpeting bliss
You could kiss the world


Destiny's hand
Moved, by love
Drawn by the whispering shadows
Into the mathematics
of our desire

It's up to Depeche Mode to take it all the way and fulfill the promise the Talking Heads made back on track 1. Byrne and co. suggested this could all happen, the escape could be made and one could return home (both concepts are tied together throughout the album), "If lovers discover/ That ev'ryone dies." Depeche Mode crystallizes all of that on "Death's Door," a jazzy, organ-grinding number sung by the band's songwriter Martin Gore. There is no more skirting around the idea that breaking free from the constraints of life and returning to one's roots are the same thing. "Death's Door" is a gospel about returning home, whereupon the singer will be no more. Yet, the song is more of an elegiac. "Father, I am staying," he says in the final lines, "I'm coming home." There is acceptance, there is resolve.

Meaning there can also be love. The final act of the CD is begun by Revell's "Love Theme," and the next three songs that follow are all concerned with romance that transcends the bounds of our mortality and the earthly plane. The titles speak for themselves: "Calling All Angels" (Jane Siberry & k.d. lang), "Humans From Earth" (T-Bone Burnett), and "Sleeping in the Devil's Bed" (Daniel Lanois). The Siberry and lang track even ties right into "Death's Door," starting with the invocation of saints and the lyric, "a man is placed upon the steps/ a baby cries/ and high above you can hear the church bells start to ring." The journey Gore's figure was on, the rest he sought, has been found, and now some peace can be achieved--preferably in a lover's arms.

U2's song, linked here with Revell's "Finale," is the summing up. "Until the End of the World" is a rocker that plays with the duality of the overall experience. Set at a party, it details lovers who indulge in the debauchery while trying to pull away, who hurt while they also love, and who ultimately swear to see each other through to the big finish. It places a lid tightly on what Wenders was going for, sending the listener spinning off into the cosmos on a swirling guitar riff and propulsive drums.

Musically, most of what Wenders has here is of a quieter feel. Cave likes to pound his piano, and Cruise is jazzy where Cherry is more dancey and rhythmic, but Wenders knows how to let the moods roll together. Listen to how well Crime & the City Solution's lower level drones go into Lou Reed's fuzzy funeral dirge opening for "What's Good," and then Can's "Last Night Sleep," with the almost Gregorian humming, speaking in tongues, and tribal drums. It's seamless. A lot of that definitely comes from his own tastes, and some of these bands are linked beyond this collection, but I think the greater strength, as I've tried to show, comes from Wenders arranging Until the End of the World the album as if it were Until the End of the World the movie. He's found a narrative in the songs, and he's organized them to tell that story: lovers finding a connection on the run, facing death, and then accepting solace in each other. These are songs about bonds formed through tragedy.

And yet, for all that explaining, it still feels like I've tried to grab something ephemeral. I feel like the true description has slipped between my fingers, leaked down in between my computer keys. Trying to understand what makes a great compilation great is like trying to figure out exactly why a more conventional record or a film or a novel works. If I knew exactly how Wim Wenders does what he does, I'd be Wim Wenders. So, I can only chase his lovers, try to trace their steps, and maybe end up in the same spot as they did--I listen to the music and glimpse something of the great beyond.

#52 #51 #50 #49 #48 #47 #46 #45 #44 #43 #42 #41 #40 #39 #38 #37 #36 #35 #34 #33 #32

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Current Soundtrack: Roddy Frame, Western Skies

Current Mood: calm

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[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yup. i used to play songs from this album on my radio show at trenton state college back in 92/93. i think i pulled it for every show i did because it was always a great go to album.

i am loving this column by the way. we're about the same age and even though we grew up on different coasts it is amazing that we were listening to almost the same stuff and getting almost the same things out of it.