Lost Highway Original Soundtrack

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published April 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Can an album be a kick and a heartbreak bummer simultaneously? The "Lost Highway" soundtrack is a chain of snarls and murmurs that entertains even as it signals the no-turning-back normalization of a fine movie-music weirdo, David Lynch.

George Lucas showed that prime rock tunes could be integrated into a movie in a non-hysterical way even as Martin Scorsese demonstrated that a girl-group oldie could make excellent background for a poolroom brawl. But it took Lynch's "Eraserhead" (1978) to finally catch up with the avant-pop music of its day. Heard now, the soundtrack -- conceived and assembled by Lynch and Alan Splet -- sounds like a prescient vision of post-punk, almost as savvy as Pere Ubu and even more rugged. Thick electronic shrieks and groans alternate with sounds like snapping electrodes and breaking machinery and the occasional gauzy, synthesizerish whoosh. Over and over, the exquisitely horrible mewls and whines of the mutant baby crop up. Whole pop styles of the future lurk within this mess: abrasive ambient, industrial, goth rock.

Still, what gives the "Eraserhead" CD its dark glow is how perfectly the lumpy racket fits with the curdled cuteness of Lynch's fantasy-pop numbers. Throughout the film, what at first sounds like a roller-rink organ on a scratchy record is heard in the distance. On repeat listenings, it becomes clear that the music is Fats Waller on the organ, from an indeed static-riddled recording. Now, Waller's organ music is not nearly as celebrated as his usually rollicking piano jazz -- except to Waller, who treasured it. The organ numbers don't jibe with his party-guy persona. They reveal an inconsolable melancholy, sometimes way down, sometimes right on the surface.

The topper in a similar vein is "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)," the only non-instrumental in the soundtrack. The entire lyric, by Lynch, goes: "In Heaven, everything is fine/You've got your good things, and I've got mine" and the even creepier variant, "You've got your good things, and you've got mine." This precursor to the sleepwalk-music Lynch would make with Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise years later in "Twin Peaks" was sung by the hideous but winsome young woman with the cheek-pouch scars who lived under the radiator in Henry Spencer's room. That was where, I'm convinced, Lynch was living at the time and certainly where he listened to music and reconfigured it.

The way Lynch used tunes showed that isolated, unhappy people don't just join in a consensual world outside when they sit alone with the radio in their bedrooms at night. They steal songs from the air and mangle them until they feel better. Occasionally, they get to display to others just how the mangled version works.

Lynch's most celebrated mangle presentation was in "Blue Velvet" (1986) when Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" underscored a scene of menace and decay. Orbison had always made operatic mini-epics for the mopey kid in the back row of the classroom. Lynch's recasting made sure nobody missed the weirdest elements ("A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman" -- yipes). One could argue that Lynch made the Big O cool again and had more to do with reviving his career than the Traveling Wilburys. Although he no longer lived under the radiator, Lynch was still able to reach back for songs he'd heard there and make crowds squirm.

Even later, the deadpan throbs of the "Twin Peaks" theme proved their underground viability when techno-disco whiz Moby transformed the number into his breakout hit, "Go." The queasy sadness in Lynch's fantasy pop flows from its sense of a bright American future gone black, and in a savvy reversal move, Moby overlaid the dying fall with a joyous synth upswoop.

Lynch's career itself has plunged since the late 1980s. He was once overpraised as the ultimate modern prophet of small-town horror, a sort of updated Hitchcock (remember the electronic score for "The Birds"). Now he's over-reviled as obvious, frantic and empty. What elevated his soundtracks was their consistent idiosyncrasy: His low rumbles and high warbles got tiresome, but at least he grew them himself. A lot of work went into making sure "Lost Highway" delivered the best stand-alone collection of music from a Lynch film. But now he's simply too big to get back down under the radiator, and it's tough for a guy who had a big, fat romance with Isabella Rossellini to think of himself as the Elephant Man anymore, so a passel of groovy rockers is on hand to certify (and prop up?) his eccentricity. In the pop eons since "Eraserhead," soundtracks have become a sort of profit insurance for films with the least bit of an uncertain reception.

As with most CDs, "Lost Highway" embeds 50
minutes of tingles in a 70-minute mass. The first
six cuts provide a heady rush. David Bowie, after
years of walking into lampposts, suddenly
remembers how to throw a fit under the spotlight
with "I'm Deranged." The Smashing Pumpkins at last
amount to more than an intriguing rumor with
"Eye." Badalamenti rips a delightful patch off
Morphine for "Red Bats with Teeth." And Nine Inch
Nails' "The Perfect Drug" is a wildcat in a shoe box
that deserves to become a hit. Most of the Barry
Adamson cuts sink to the drab brooding Lynch
used to turn inside out. Everyone can skim past the
neo-lounge and acid-jazz doodles in the middle of
the program, and Marilyn Manson's cover of
Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" is a
bloodless botch (Jim Jarmusch got there first,
anyway). Trent Reznor is the producer (Lynch
fathered his videos). Lynch takes the executive
role, sitting behind the wide oak desk while geek
musicians influenced by geek musicians who were
influenced by his old movies sell tickets for him.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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