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Maybe you were expecting the Hunger Games companion album to bear some similarities to the Twilight soundtracks… aggressive-sounding, and aggressively youth-oriented, no?
Think again. The track listing for The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 isn't the stuff that movie blockbuster souvenirs are usually made of. Take a look at the artist lineup—chock full of quiet or acoustically based acts like the Civil Wars, Neko Case, the Decemberists, and the Low Anthem--and you might think you've mistakenly been slipped the nominees' list for the Americana Music Awards.
Sure, there are household names too, like Maroon 5, Miranda Lambert, and—not incidentally—the woman Billboard just named as the top musical money-earner of the last year, Taylor Swift, who makes two contributions. But when Arcade Fire is just about the closest thing to an adolescent sensation among the mature-leaning likes of Glen Hansard and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you might wonder: Is this any way to prop up a teen tentpole?
But the decision to imbue the soundtrack with serious cred makes sense when you consider that the Hunger Games book series, once thought the province of the "young adult" market, crossed over to not-so-young adults a long time ago. Director Gary Ross' decision to hire esteemed friend T Bone Burnett to produce the soundtrack sent out a signal to those few remaining grown-ups who might not yet have caught Katniss fever: This is for you, too.
"Isn't it great to put something in the world that doesn't feel predictable?" asks Lionsgate's head of film music, Tracy McKnight. "I think the misconception is that, just because you have a book that appeals to a certain demographic, it's going to go a certain way. But what we tried to do was have a selection of music that really fit the story of The Hunger Games, and our only preconceived idea was about approaching artists who would connect to the material. We always knew we wanted to make a record that was a great listening experience from beginning to end. We're giving the audience something really special that they get to discover, instead of it just being pre-stamped and saying 'Here's your teen album.'"
Taylor Swift says it was an easy sell to get her involved in the project, and not just because she loves Suzanne Collins' trilogy of dystopian novels, but because the producers talked the right talk when it came to how to complement the movie adaptation's themes.
"One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of this soundtrack is that the people in charge of putting this movie together are obsessed with making the music match the tone of the movie and the emotions expressed in the book," Swift told Yahoo! in an interview on the eve of the film's premiere. "They are in love with the characters and have thought about every detail that has gone into this movie. When I first met with the people from Lionsgate and T Bone, they said, 'We're trying to make music that reflects what Appalachian music will sound like in 300 years.' That authenticity was why I wanted to write music for this soundtrack."
If Swift's "Appalachian" reference made your head cock, you may be one of the few remaining Hunger Games holdouts.
"One of the things that was really interesting about the book," explains McKnight, "is how, 300 years into the future, the United States of America no longer exist and there are districts in place. And Katniss, our lead, would basically be living in what would be the Appalachian Mountains now. That's how some of the ideas started to percolate for what we were going to do—and that's of course where T Bone has such a masterful knowledge of sound and how to incorporate that into something special."
Ever since he produced the 10-times-platinum soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burnett has been the premiere go-to guy for anything involving roots music in the movies. Why should 24th century roots music be any exception?
Not everything on the album fits that template, exactly. Kid Cudi represents the "and beyond" part of the title, since his "The Ruler and the Killer" takes the point of view of the evil forces running the games from the capital district. It's not just a thematic but musical departure from much of the rest of the album, too, since the revered hip-hop artist is working in the hard-rock mode heard on his latest album.
Some other artists depart from their usual styles on the soundtrack. Maroon 5 gets about as far away as possible from "Moves Like Jagger" with a song written by Glen Hansard, "Come Away to the Water," moving into a spooky ambience that sounds like something out of the Daniel Lanois playbook. Hansard himself sings "Take the Heartland," meanwhile, and if you're expecting something akin to his duo, the Swell Season—whose style would have fit in perfectly on this album—he's full of surprises, too, since his tune is the album's most electrified rocker, with Hansard practically sounding like a punk screamer.
But more characteristic of the album's reflective tone is "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" by the Secret Sisters, a sibling duo from Alabama who've worked with Burnett before, not to mention another famous fan, Jack White. That song is being given away as an instant free download to anyone who purchases advance tickets to the film through Fandango or movietickets.com.
The Secret Sisters' contribution was possibly the only one that wasn't written specifically for the movie. Instead, it was inspired by the devastation left behind after tornados ripped through their home state last April. But it came to seem applicable to fictional danger and ruination, too.
"We had tried to write a song inspired by the books, but we were stuck a little bit," says Laura Rogers. "All of a sudden, we thought, why don't we see if this other song 'Tomorrow Will Be Kinder' will work. So we played the song for T Bone and everybody affiliated with the soundtrack, and they all felt like it was a keeper. When the song was written, we were just so weighed down and worried about all the people in the South that had been affected by those storms. But even though it mentions coming from a really dark, frightened place, it also has this really optimistic, hopeful outlook. And I think that if you read The Hunger Games, it's a really, really dark book, but the characters are always trying to get to the next day, because there's hope in that next day. It was kind of a perfect match."
It goes without saying that the soundtrack goes heavy on the angst. Take the Punch Brothers' "Dark Days" (which happens to feature harmony vocals by the Secret Sisters): "We don't have to reap the fear they sow, friends, long as we hide our love away… It can see us through these dark days, though they seem to darken as we go."
Or the Civil Wars' "Kingdom Come," which might be sung from the point of view of someone in the afterlife awaiting one of the losing contestants: "Run, run, run away/Buy yourself another day/A cold wind's whispering secrets in your ear/Only you can hear…/Don't you fret my dear, it'll all be over soon."
Or consider Swift's second song on the soundtrack, after "Safe & Sound," which was released as a single in December: "Eyes Open," which sounds more characteristically Swiftian, as far as being a louder and potentially more commercial rock number… but which is also decidedly more paranoid than the comforting backwoods ballad that preceded it.
"Yesterday we were just children/Playing soldiers, just pretending/Dreaming dreams with happy endings," Swift sings. In the new reality, "Here you are two steps ahead/And staying on guard/Every lesson forms a new scar/They never thought you'd make it this far…/Nobody comes to save you now." Sure, it's about fighting for your life in a cruel, deadly, unforgiving dytopia… though for some young fans, these lyrics could also just be a metaphor for entering the workplace in the 21st century.
"To me, 'Safe & Sound' represents the empathy and compassion Katniss feels for Rue, Peeta, and Prim in different parts of the book," Swift told Yahoo!. "'Eyes Open' is more of a depiction of Katniss's relationship with the Capitol. She knows she can't trust anyone in the government, and that's why I wanted the song to feel more frantic—like the sound of being hunted or chased."
Executives at the label releasing the album, Universal Republic, know that "Eyes Open" will be a big lure, having been withheld up to now. "When the album drops March 20," says Jim Roppo, the label's marketing VP, "there's another brand new Taylor song in the marketplace at that point, and those don't come along every minute, so we have some exciting opportunities with that"—including maybe, eventually, promoting it as a single, though decisions about future emphasis tracks haven't been made.
Right now, Roppo says, the push is behind Arcade Fire's "Abraham's Daughter," which has been released to multiple rock radio formats. It's not necessarily a shoo-in as a hit, since Regine Chassagne is the featured vocalist, not Win Butler, and the lyrics are close to unintelligible. But it is the first song to play over the closing credits.
That's not the only Arcade Fire contribution to the film, though it's the only one included on this album. They also wrote "Horn of Plenty," an anthem for the fascistic capital, which was recorded by the London Voices and produced by the movie's orchestral scorer, James Newton Howard. It'll be included on the score album, which will reach stores a week after the CD of original songs.
Besides the Swift/Civil Wars and Arcade Fire tracks, which have been released as singles, and the Secret Sisters' song, which is a free download for advance ticket purchasers, there's one other tune already out there—the Decemberists' "One Engine," one of the more rocking selections, which is an "instant grat" download for anyone who pre-orders the digital album on iTunes.
Another digital bonus is in the works, albeit still shrouded in secrecy. In the movie, lead actress Jennifer Lawrence sings "Deep in the Meadow (Lullaby)," the lyrics for which were written into the book by novelist Suzanne Collins. Credits for the film version have the music to the tune being supplied by T Bone Burnett and his daughter, Simone. Fans have wondered whether it would be on the companion album, and the answer is… yes and no.
To clarify: A mysterious someone was just in the studio last week recording a new version of "Deep in the Meadow (Lullaby)." Whether it was Lawrence or another artist, the powers-that-be won't say. They'll only tease that this secretive recording will be available as a free download, one week after the album comes out, to anyone who bought the soundtrack in either physical or digital form.
Will the album be a smash? The 8-ball would seem to say "yes" when it comes to anything connected with The Hunger Games, although the market for soundtracks has been so weak in recent years that nothing can be taken as a given.
"I'm not going to predict that this is a chart topper per se," says Universal Republic's Roppo, "because there's always that lady Adele who seems to have no end in sight with her chart reign. But Top 5, certainly. This is one of the few takeaway, keepsake items that one can purchase affiliated with the film that will evoke that emotional response in the same way we hope watching the movie will. The soundtrack game has kind of become a lot of licensed content, but this is all-new music, and we tried to make something special that's an album that doesn't feel disjointed as a consistent body of work."
"Soundtracks in general, absolutely, there's not as much of a market anymore," adds McKnight, "so this all feels unique and special. There's a lot of excitement that I haven't seen in a long time, going back to my music supervising days and running a soundtrack label." But she thinks that stems from the artists' eagerness to participate in and promote the album, as much as the obvious branding element. "I've never seen anything like it, where you gave one book out to artists and then they would go and buy books two and three and read them in four days and come back and talk to us. It was great. It doesn't always go like that. It's fun. People are reading again!" she exults. And who knows—maybe buying soundtracks again, too.
If it does turn into even a sub-Adele-level hit, a lot of little-known artists will benefit. McKnight is particularly excited by a singer named Birdy, a new Warner Bros. act who is only 15. She gets to close the album. "I just loved having a perspective from a 15-year-old girl who wrote a really beautiful song about kindness and love, and I think T Bone did a beautiful job with her," McKnight says. "If you're out in the world right now, I'll challenge you to find a teenager who can sit at a piano and sing and write and not be sexed up, glammed up, or popped up. She's an old soul but still a very young girl—like Katniss, I think."
Meanwhile, Monday's premiere was prompting some anxiety among a few roots-music acts who aren't used to getting gussied up for Hollywood affairs. "We're not used to doing red carpet events, so we've got to hurry up and get fancy dresses and look like superstars," said Laura Rogers of the Secret Sisters. "Hopefully we won't look like country bumpkins."