While the rest of the world still revels in the aftermath of Twin Peaks: The Return, Kieran Read discusses the impact of its legendary soundtrack
25 years after it changed the landscape of TV, David Lynch’s iconic Twin Peaks has come to its conclusion. Once a weekly serial murder mystery that captured the imagination of a nation with one simple question (‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’), what Twin Peaks has become now is starkly different. Following a quarter of a decade left dangling into obscurity, Twin Peaks: The Return forces us further down the rabbit hole of trauma, dreams and spirituality in a way that, once again, stands apart. Those hoping for quirky, soapish running plots, satisfying conclusions and that warm, nostalgic 90s feel were instead faced with a slow, drifting, bleak examination on what it really means to ‘return’. In an era obsessed with rebooting, the director treats his beloved Twin Peaks like a grim trip to a sick, old relative; in hindsight, it was stupid to expect anything other than 18 hours of mind-melting Lynchian fuckery.
But I am not here to discuss the show’s meaning, instead just one of its crucial components. As essential as the characters and location themselves, Twin Peaks owes much of its legacy to its iconic soundtrack, one that is still widely considered the greatest ever. Timeless, beautiful and haunting, the music of the show, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, is the thread that weaves all its disparate elements together, continually encouraging you to get lost within what is being created.
From the opening guitar strums of the ‘Twin Peaks Theme’, laid over scenic shots of sawmills, forests and waterfalls, we are welcomed into a world that runs at a different pace, a world of comfortable textures and mysteries hidden behind all of them. In ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, dark synths give way to gorgeous, climactic crescendos, ‘Audrey’s Dance’ and ‘Dance of the Dream Man’ sweep us with sultry jazz and tracks from Roadhouse-resident Julee Cruise (‘The Nightingale’, ‘Into The Night’) shine ethereally. The infectious tone of the original Twin Peaks is captured perfectly within Badalamenti’s score and its influence was immeasurable. No other show had a soundtrack as special as Peaks did, and none have come quite as close since.
It’s timelessness, however, did not mean it was overused. Despite briefly enthralling a nation, Twin Peaks fell victim to shoddy writing, network pressures and an eventual abandonment by its original creators. A year after its cancellation, Lynch returned for the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a psychological horror depicting the abuse of Laura Palmer before her death. Stripped of its welcoming charm, Fire Walk With Me was torn apart by both fans and critics, killing the world there and then.
Unsurprisingly, its Badalamenti-composed soundtrack was no such disaster. Highly acclaimed and award-winning, the music of Fire Walk With Me is seductively nightmarish. From meandering jazz (‘Theme from Fire Walk With Me’), hip-hop stomp (‘A Real Indication’) and sleazy rock jams (‘The Pink Room’), the sound of Fire Walk With Me perfectly displays Lynch’s desire to abandon the quaintness of the series. The few themes we did know were truncated into half of a 5-minute montage, and the return of the beloved Julee Cruise feels more tragic than triumphant; Fire Walk With Me heads out of its way to avoid anything that fans took comfort in. Whilst the harrowing excellence of the film became apparent over time, there was never such debate regarding the strength of the soundtrack.
Which brings us to now, as predicted by Laura Palmer herself, 25 years later. ‘Listen to the sounds’ we’re advised in the first scene of The Return, both a warning and invitation. Composed by Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch, Dean Hurley and Chromatics sound architect Johnny Jewel, The Return boasts some of the greatest sound design of the series so far. Taking lead from Fire Walk With Me, this new soundtrack once again steps away from the warm vacuum of the original and further into the abyss ahead.
Consider the already infamous ‘Part 8’ as example. Back-dropping nuclear bomb detonations, vomiting experiments and homeless, blackened woodsmen tearing apart a corpse (I think?), Lynch slows, chops and screws with orchestral suites from both Beethoven and Penderecki (as well as a screaming monkey) to horrifying effect. Later, The Platters’ wonderful ‘My Prayer’ stands soundtrack to skull crushing, Badalamenti concocts sleepy ballroom waltzes and Nine Inch Nails turn up to wreak havoc in the local Roadhouse; a lot has changed in those 25 years.
And this is all without mentioning one of the most prevalent sounds used within The Return: a complete lack of it. Whereas Badalamenti’s original soundtrack engulfed scenes, used as musical cues for its quick shifting tones, here we are often left with absolutely nothing. As we watch characters we love repeating old mistakes or places we knew now abandoned, we continually have to do it in silence. Slow rumbles, muted frequencies and natural noises guide us now; the hum of wind, the grinding of metal, the manipulation of the human voice, almost every sound crafted within The Return unsettles. Colder and lonelier, the design from Dean Hurley and Lynch here is masterful, minimal and subtle; a show we once sought ease in that no longer wants us comfortable.
This exercise of sonic constraint in The Return is so effective that, when they do occasionally use Badalamenti’s original soundtrack, the results are almost operatic. So intrinsically married to the original, The Return’s selective use of these tracks force fond, old memories to shape new reactions: comfort, pity, dread, confusion. Even the opening credits feel more luscious, alluring and grand, though only because they feel out of place, too delicate for what they now prelude. In the score’s tactical sparsity, moments of true ecstasy are created. Fleeting glimpses of what’s been before are buried in a swarm of cold, buzzing drones and isolating quiet, just like how memories work: getting lost over time. We are not pandered to nor spoiled; the senses of nostalgia that many ‘revivals’ strive to achieve are instead just small parts of a much greater journey here, conjured by (and a testament to) the legacy of the original soundtrack.
Lynch similarly uses this method to bring other pre-existing music into the fold. Frequently labelled as the elderly director’s swansong, The Return offers the chance for Lynch to culminate a career. This perhaps explains why The Return feels so alienated from its predecessor, as it (both literally and thematically) covers a lot greater ground than the town’s confines. Lynch shatters the precious illusion held by Twin Peaks’ exclusive use of Badalamenti’s score by incorporating songs he loves personally: The Paris Sisters’ tranquil ‘I Love How You Love Me’, Booker T. & The M.G.’s classic ‘Green Onions’, ZZ Top’s roaring ‘Sharp Dressed Man’. Through this, Lynch shows a once self-contained world now susceptible to the one surrounding it. As Otis Redding’s roars (taken from his Monterey performance of ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’) puncture the small town’s dramas, it feels that what we once knew was only a fragment of something much larger. As the grander picture of Twin Peaks expands, so does its musical palette, allowing the director to luxuriate within a world he equally loves and loves to torture.
Lynch’s attention to legacy is never made clearer than in the rotating list of headlining acts gracing the iconic Roadhouse stage, a variation of his collaborators, friends, muses and relatives. Sharon Van Etten dazzled with ‘Tarifa’, Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone captured the dream-like essence of Peaks twice each, Hudson Mohawke’s off-kilter production disorientated, Rebekah Del Rio returned from Mulholland Drive to stunning effect and The Cactus Blossoms served up Lynch’s own brand of Americana effortlessly. Eddie Vedder broke hearts, The Veils spread dread and Trouble got groovy, even Twin Peaks’ own Julee Cruise returned for a rendition of her breathtakingly sombre track ‘The World Spins’. The clear legacy of
both Peaks and Lynch is laid out clearly and impressively on The Return, one so heavily indebted to what the original achieved that it’s almost inescapable. Here, the director turns the spotlight to those carrying Twin Peaks into the future, all influenced by memories of a happier time.
In the season finale, the late Miguel Ferrer informs Lynch’s character that he’s going soft in his old age, to which he responds: ‘Not where it counts buddy’, just before pushing us even further into abstract, horrifying territories. The Return is anything but soft, or caring, or sentimental. Instead, it is persistent in moving forward whether people like it or not. Obsessed with time, influence and perseveration, the musical direction of The Return understands its own legacy and uses itself sparingly without ever forgetting what came before. Taken to its core components, Twin Peaks is trauma; whilst many associate those warm synths and beautiful crescendos of the original with a simpler place and time, Twin Peaks has, and always will, centre on inescapable grief. Trauma, like the music of The Return, manifests in unnatural glimpses of the past, infects those around it and, when it wants to, abandons you in lonely silence. If the original Twin Peaks soundtrack was lightning in a bottle, then The Return is that bottle being used to dimly light an old, decrepit artefact. As I mentioned earlier, we were stupid to expect anything less from Lynch.