In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
I haven’t seen Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin yet, but I’ve already felt it—and been deeply disturbed by it—several times over, thanks to its haunting score by Mica Levi. As the leader of Micachu And The Shapes, Levi produced one album of nervy, twitchy art-pop I enjoyed (2009’s Jewellery), and one ambitious experiment I found interesting but never really got into (2011’s Chopped & Screwed). But as a soundtrack composer, she’s emerged as one of the most distinct new voices in film scoring since Clint Mansell, to name another pop experimentalist who found his true calling in the movies.
Under The Skin finds Scarlett Johansson playing an alien who lures in men by looking like Scarlett Johansson, only to kill them and feed off their flesh—a premise that deftly avoids falling into Species-like B-movie territory thanks to its pervasive atmosphere of dread, aided in no small part by Levi’s score. As she outlined for The Guardian, Levi sought to mirror Johansson’s extraterrestrial impostor by taking instrument sounds that were “identifiably human,” then bending and “perverting” them until they were decidedly not.
And much as Johansson attempts to mimic the behavior of ordinary, attractive women by caking on makeup and a cheap wig, Levi’s violin strains to find a unifying, identifiable theme, but the best it can manage is an anxious, repetitive loop. Levi has more than once referred to this needling sound as a “beehive,” the scratching, shuddering sound of the strings evoking the constant prickle of hunger buzzing inside her. Listening to it, it also buzzes inside you.
But there are also moments when washes of actual melody soothe those jangled nerves—some evoking the “strip-club shit” (as Levi put it to Pitchfork) of Johansson’s fake-eyelash seduction techniques, and some capturing the genuine feelings of affection that begin to creep in and confuse her. On the soundtrack, that evolution reaches its apex with the track “Love,” where soaring Blade Runner synths vie for dominance over those violin screeches, like the new emotions experienced by Johansson’s alien fighting to overcome her natural predatory instincts. Even without the film to place it in context, “Love” tells a complete emotional story—and that’s what the best soundtrack composers can do. Mica Levi should consider herself one of them.