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Broadchurch (EP) (Ólafur Arnalds)

June 1, 2013

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Ólafur Arnalds , 2013, Mercury Classics
6 tracks, 20:52

The soundtrack to the 2013 ITV drama series “Broadchurch” is one of those that achieve so much by doing so very little. Subtle piano play, a poignant cello performance and some well-chosen synthesised sounds is all it takes to create a landscape so full of emotions; it rivals any big ol’ tearjerker. At just under 21 minutes, it delivers in spades.

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Television Score”, 2013 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.
WINNER “Original Television Music”, 2014 British Academy Television Craft Awards.

What is it?

“Broadchurch” is an 8-part TV drama situated around the murder of an 8-year old boy in a sleepy sea-side town, written by Chris Chibnall who previously contributed to popular shows like “Dr Who”, “Torchwood”, and “Life on Mars”. Whilst the ‘who dunnit’ element of the show kept audiences guessing (and indeed: betting) for two months, the show is really about the impact such a tragic event has on the various characters that occupy Broadchurch. Airing throughout March and April 2013 the show attracted around 9 million viewers and was lauded with critical acclaim. It’s calculatingly slow pace being likened to popular shows such as “The Killing”. The killer was revealed early on in the last episode, to very few people’s surprise, but seeing as this was never the key component to the show the episode focused mainly on the aftermath to the reveal, which included powerhouse performances by its key cast members, most notably Olivia Colman and David Tennant.

What does it sound like?

The choice of composer for this surprise TV hit is an inspired one: Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds, who has several ‘new age-y’ albums to his name, but no previous film or tv work (though some of his music may have popped up in various places). The score plays as big a part as the actors or the locations in “Broadchurch”. Arnalds has a distinct sound centered around piano, strings, cello, some distorted electronics and some processed percussion. He manages to create a sound-world that evokes feelings of immense loss, desperation, longing and loneliness; but also love.

The irrefutable highlight is “Beth’s Theme”, for the mother of the murdered child. It starts with a solo piano playing something that isn’t really much more than four chords with last one lining up to the first, so it can just carry on endlessly. Very carefully a cello and strings are introduced (at 1:14), playing a theme of descending notes in counterpoint to the piano. The piece continues to grow in intensity, whilst still circling around the same set of chords (though they do shift a little). It reaches its climax around the 4-minute mark, after which the track returns (or rather: continues) with the solo piano, ever so gently played as if fingers are barely touching the keys. The instrumentation is so ‘little’, yet the emotional impact is enormous. This is Heartfelt; with a capital H.

The end title song “So Close” written by Arnalds and featuring the husky voice of Arnor Dan is another highlight. It continues in the same style as the score, though includes more synth and drum loops which are integrated exquisitely. The lyrics hint at the struggle to find the killer. In an interview Arnalds explained that the score contains several hints at who the killer is; one is the end title song, the other lies in the fact that all but one suspect are underscored with the same musical motif.

“Main Theme”, “Suspects”, “Arcade” and “Broken” are four fabulous tracks drenched in melancholy, anxiety and hope. “Arcade” mirrors “Beth’s Theme” (bringing in her theme from 0:18) as it accompanies a scene that signifies a turning point for Beth and her family. “Suspects” is the only track on this EP that conveys any sense of urgency through the use of percussion. Incidentally, during the second half of that track (around 1:30), the see-sawing piano is introduced; percussion intensifies and strings play a theme of ascending notes that almost seems to be an opposite of “Beth’s Theme”. Many may struggle to find a theme in the “Main Theme”, which for the most part consists of eerie John Carpenter-like synth pads, undulating piano and violin (mimicking the piano at half pace). A short theme of three ascending notes appears around the 2:06 mark. The show contains plenty more excellent music that unfortunately did not make it on to this brief release.

Is it any good?

Less is more. That is the key lessons one can learn from this score. With so many scores overindulging in self-importance, it is refreshing to hear something that dares stay down to earth. Now I could include some psychobabble about how the music seems to represent the timeless sea, by which the town of Broadchurch is set; or how only the bleak Icelandic landscape could inspire a composer to write this type of music, but I won’t (…ah!). The simple truth is this: in all its simplicity and minimalism (at the risk of using both terms incorrectly) this is the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful, haunting and poignant music I have heard in a very, very long time. For all its melancholy, it is ‘pretty’ enough to revisit time and time again. Fans of Arnalds will already know this. Anyone else… I suspect they will soon become familiar with his work.

Rated [4.5/5]

Tracklisting

1. Main Theme (3.01)
2. So Close (feat. Arnor Dan) (3.52)
3. Suspects (2.47)
4. Arcade (1.33)
5. Broken (4.24)
6. Beth’s Theme (5.15)

Available digitally only; on I-Tunes, Amazon and Google Play.

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