Thom Yorke has always been interested in disquiet. Even before Kid A, Radiohead seemed to subscribe to the theory that art should either disturb the comfortable (a la “Paranoid Android”) or comfort the disturbed (a la “Creep”). Since their electronic renaissance in 2000, the band—Yorke in particular—have been intent on unnerving and even terrorising a listener through the power of synthesisers, clickety drum machines, and menacing string arrangements.
There are those who believe Yorke’s ventures into electronica are watered down impersonations of the real thing—“cheesy,” as a certain artist cited as an inspiration for Kid A put it. The argument is fair: parts of Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser, feel flaccid, and remixes from the likes of Four Tet and Modeselektor actually improved on the originals. But often, as with Kid A and the wonderfully aged King of Limbs, Yorke’s songwriting is so good that questions of authenticity become irrelevant. His soundtrack for Suspiria falls into this category.
Yorke’s first film soundtrack is for a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic. Like the original, Luca Guadagnino’s modern interpretation is a gruesome supernatural horror centred around American dancer Suzy Bannion, who joins a prestigious German dance school run by the severe Madame Blanc. As Suzy impresses Blanc with her dancing ability, it becomes clear—to us, though not to Suzy—that the school is actually a coven of witches, preying on young girls in the interest of sorcery.
If Yorke’s solo work sometimes misses a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, it is provided here by Madame Blanc and co. Guadagnino’s film is both obsessed with and unsure of itself, lost between awkward allusions to the Holocaust, Cold War era Berlin, and motherhood, but if you ignore its many stretches of narrative discord and treat it as a music video (in much the way that I approach Notorious or Stranger Things) the results are often hellishly beautiful.
The soundtrack to the 1977 original—by Italian prog-rockers Goblin—boasts a theme that acts like a character in itself, creating intense terror in otherwise inconspicuous scenes. Yorke’s “Volk,” named after the dance Blanc pummels into her students and recurring throughout the soundtrack, is a very worthy tribute. Heard on its own, it’s tough to imagine how the dance might look: there’s no percussion, just two eery piano figures and the discordant parps of a trumpet. The theme’s initial outing in “Olga’s Destruction” arrives at the film’s first moment of overstated ugliness, as the titular Olga is grotesquely disfigured by the telekinetic powers of dance. I found myself repulsed by the scene, but gripped by the “Volk” motif.
The idea of “standalone” music is often banded about in critique of big-name soundtracks like this one; it’s perhaps a legacy of the Twilight franchise that fans now expect an OST to function as a studio album as well as a score. Suspiria’s promotion strategy of drip-feeding five quasi-singles prior to the film’s official release adds fuel to that fire (you wouldn’t catch Ennio Morricone doing that.) And Moments on the Suspiria soundtrack do justify home listening, like the winding “Has Ended,” and aching “Unmade.”
But Yorke’s job here is to maximise the impact of the film through sound, something he does masterfully whenever employed. Take “The Hooks,” a relatively standard, if unsettling, piano track on its own, but which adds a crucial foreboding to Suzy’s audition in the early stages of the film. After seeing the dance, the grunts of exertion which lurk in the depths of the track become hard to ignore on every further listen.
Then there are the moments of the Suspiria OST which are purely functional, designed as a backdrop to add mood to dialogue. Yorke executes these well most of the time, as with the drones of “The Inevitable Pull” and “A Light Green,” but a little ostentatiously at others. It may be a fault of Guadagnino’s that Yorke’s music is not used as much as it could have been (much like the brilliant Dakota Johnson, who is not given enough focus in the lead), though it may be because too often the music threatens to unfurl into a Radiohead song, drawing attention from the already muddled narrative.
The soundtrack works best at Suspiria’s belated climax (though we’re then given a tedious epilogue and even a post-credits vignette.) After nearly two and a half bloody hours, all is revealed to the sound of “Suspirium Finale.” No spoilers, but picture lots of naked bodies, some bodies with no skin, some with too much skin, and a bunch of human entrails, all as Yorke coos away in one of his finest vocal refrains since “Nude.”
Brian Eno once said that the trouble with lyrics is that they make music “unmysterious.” Yorke is a one-man riposte to such an argument. His wizened old voice has always thrived on the abstract—sometimes in the extreme: I for one have previously found myself belting out oral approximations of Radiohead lyrics without actually knowing what the hell the words are, let alone what they mean. The “Suspirium” chorus, “all is well / as long as we keep spinning,” is catchy enough to be scrawled in the Hail to the Thief sleeve notes, but is lent an almost anthemic poignancy when paired with the evil exploits of a spinsterish dance school. In spite of the prevalent bodily fluids on screen, I felt oddly moved by the sequence.
That moment will most likely be my enduring impression of Suspiria, and will ensure I revisit the soundtrack with enthusiasm in future. The film itself may have done some harm to Guadagnino’s reputation as a defining director of this era. The soundtrack, however, will do no damage to Yorke’s credentials as a composer.
01. A Storm That Took Everything 1:47
02. The Hooks 3:18
03. Suspirium 3:21
04. Belongings Thrown in a River 1:27
05. Has Ended 4:56
06. Klemperer Walks 1:38
07. Open Again 2:49
08. Sabbath Incantation 3:06
09. The Inevitable Pull 1:36
10. Olga's Destruction (Volk Tape) 2:58
11. The Conjuring of Anke 2:16
12. A Light Green 1:48
13. Unmade 4:27
14. The Jumps 2:38
01. Volk 6:24
02. The Universe Is Indiferrent 4:48
03. The Balance of Things 1:08
04. A Soft Hand Across Your Face 0:44
05. Suspirium Finale 7:03
06. A Choir of One 14:01
07. Synthesizer Speaks 0:58
08. The Room of Compartments 1:14
09. An Audition 0:34
10. Voiceless Terror 2:30
11. The Epilogue
Suspiria is out now via XL Recordings.