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If you want to understand what’s going on in Twin Peaks, just listen to it

Twin Peaks (Photo: Showtime). Graphic: Allison Corr.
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The first line of Twin Peaks: The Return, after a quarter-century hiatus and endless speculation and several minutes of dreamlike preamble, is this: “Listen to the sounds.” It’s The Giant speaking, or at least the huge guy we used to call The Giant, sitting in a grayscale corner of The Black Lodge with a docile Agent Cooper. Before spouting some names and numbers that still haven’t been deciphered, The Giant points Agent Cooper toward a gramophone that emits some unearthly chittering. You listen to it. Cooper blinks.

It’s a helpful instruction, not just for Cooper but for the viewers, who, struggling to make sense of this 18-hour late-career entrant to David Lynch’s canon, might do well to listen to the sounds. The legend of Twin Peaks is inextricable from the legend of its music, a narcotic sonic landscape cooked up by Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti that’s equal parts mournful synthesizers, deranged jazz, and pulsing, hypnotic industrial rock. The sound of the show influenced not just the scads of artists making music during its original run, but throughout the intervening decades, as its mysterious allure spread like an urban legend, eventually becoming required streaming. It is, at this point, a shorthand for an entire mood and type of sonic experience. Online stores like Bleep and Boomkat regularly drop references to Lynch and Twin Peaks in its capsule recommendations for new electronic, ambient, and indie acts, no further explanation required. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Twin Peaks invented its own genre, a cross-medium pollination of such wide-reaching scope that it’s hard to find an easy analog.

There has always been a musicality to Lynch’s films, dating back to the proto-noise soundscapes of his 1977 debut Eraserhead, produced alongside the experimental sound engineer Alan Splet. Lynch once described film as “50 percent visual and 50 percent sound,” adding, “Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.” But the musical legend of Twin Peaks has had its own singular memetic power, the swooning synthesized melancholy of Badalamenti’s score and the dreamlike musings of Lynch’s teenage protagonists popping up as samples in the music of El-P, Moby, Mount Eerie, and more; as direct source material for an entire album of covers by Xiu Xiu; and as subtler subconscious influences in the heavily Lynchian music of Beach House, Chromatics, Dirty Beaches, Sky Ferreira, Lana Del Rey, Akira Yamaoka, et al., at least some of whom have come full circle by appearing in The Return.

The Mitochondrial Eve of this whole aesthetic vision isn’t something by Lynch, but rather This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song To The Siren,” which transforms Tim Buckley’s longing folk song into an existential lament at once dirgelike and intensely sensual—la petite mort in song form. Lynch adored the song and wanted to use it for Blue Velvet but couldn’t clear the rights, and so he was pointed in the direction of Badalamenti, who co-wrote “Mysteries Of Love” for singer Julee Cruise as a replacement. That song—an imitation of a cover—established the Twin Peaks musical rubric: a female singer gliding through swanlike synthesizers that flit imperceptibly between elegance and elegy.

Badalamenti, Lynch, and Cruise would later cut two albums together, one released just before the premiere of Twin Peaks and one just after it ended, mining the rich vein originally unearthed by “Song To The Siren.” Many of those songs then appeared on the show itself. Denoted by their otherworldly beauty, these tracks are also peppered with abstract, menacing phrases—like, “She’ll never go to Hollywood”—that vaguely echo the tragedy of Laura Palmer. (Lynch would return to this style rather directly on two collaborative albums with Chrysta Bell, who plays The Return’s Agent Tammy Preston.) While this dreamy pop isn’t the only sonic mode of the original series; lounge jazz also plays regularly through more lighthearted scenes, while in 1992’s Fire Walk With Me, a pivotal scene is played to menacing, reverb-drenched rockabilly. But it is the sound most frequently evoked by the legion of artists who cite Twin Peaks as an influence.

And yet, that sound is barely heard on The Return, which, for all its thundering brilliance and paranormal quiescence, has also been a deeply frustrating experience, ambivalent toward its viewers and obstinately wandering toward a conclusion few are likely to find as pat and satisfactory as television generally provides. The sonic landscape of the show has been as assured as any of Lynch’s works, but Badalamenti’s old quip about Twin Peaks’ music—that it comes in two speeds, slow and reverse—finds a third gear for The Return: silent. Startling stretches of the show feature no musical accompaniment at all, or only bare mechanical hums. Much of the focus thus far has been on the exceptions to this: the once-per-episode live performances at The Roadhouse, featuring many of those musicians inspired by the original show playing to the very characters who inspired them.

In practice, these have been strangely emotive ways to round out the episodes, a blossoming of musical color arriving like a strange nightcap. In the case of season centerpiece “Part 8,” it served to ratchet up the tension with a performance by “The” Nine Inch Nails. (The definite article was an incidental flub that Lynch liked enough to keep in.) More abstractly, though, these performances have allowed Lynch to accept an elder statesman role, acknowledging the long shadow cast by the original series on pop culture in the same way that, say, Lost Highway traded on his evergreen counterculture appeal.

But there’s much more to be gleaned from the other 90 percent of the sound on Twin Peaks: The Return—from the world outside the bar. Lynch collaborated again with Badalamenti, as well as long-time sound engineers Dean Hurley and Ron Eng, to create the tableau of drones, buzzes, wind-swept expanses, and baleful synthesizers that, together, composes a notably more barren, mirthless audio experience than the whiplash tonal shifts of the original series. Gone entirely are the sprightly jazz shuffles adding levity to the goofy scenes of yokel drama, replaced here by utter silence, cameras placed at clinical cross-sections, conversations circling aimlessly without a hint of musicality. The original show’s most iconic songs surface here as long-suppressed memories, like when the Manichaean melodrama of “Laura Palmer’s Theme” rises as Bobby lays eyes on a photo of his long-dead girlfriend, or when a jazz shuffle plays as Cooper catches a whiff of coffee, or when James, a quarter-century older, lays his croaking, pitchy falsetto over the original backing track of “Just You And I.”

This is nostalgia played not for the cheap thrills of so many TV and film revivals but as something aching and utterly lost, drawing attention to the passage of time and the changes of the world around these characters. Lynch has always excelled at drawing attention to the artifice of acting, letting the unique charm of less-skilled performances (say, Billy Ray Cyrus) sit easily alongside masterful ones. It’s a technique employed skillfully in those moments of Bobby and James, whose actors haven’t exactly flourished outside of Twin Peaks, but are once again elevated here by the power of Badalamenti’s original music rising out of nowhere.

What is that “nowhere,” though? In a recent interview in The New York Times with A.V. Club contributor Noel Murray, Lynch said, “Sound is—and underline these words—extremely important.” Those extremely important sounds, on The Return, come across like the natural world as heard through the mechanized din of Gordon Cole’s hearing aid. It’s all drones, buzzes, far-off sirens, the sweep of wind through empty expanses of concrete and trees. The slowness of the original series’ music returns here, but stretched to nightmarish extents, as on Lynch’s screwed and chopped Muddy Magnolias remix to introduce Mr. C on “Part 1” or the quintuple-slowed version of “Moonlight Sonata” that introduces the woodsmen on “Part 8.” Lynch’s own voice is even stretched harrowingly over that night-vision footage of the wildlife Sarah Palmer seems to enjoy watching.

The net result is a sense of eerie stillness, which can seem downright somnambulant compared to other TV dramas. If the original Twin Peaks nestled up alongside high-budget soap operas like Northern Exposure and Dynasty, the new version evokes the stateliness of modern prestige TV. It owes a particular debt to Mad Men, the camera sitting at the same impassive coffee-table height of that show and its plotlines unfolding with its same leisurely opacity—intercut, of course, with moments of jarring Lynchian violence and surrealism. As with Mad Men, there is also a sense of gallows humor, which Peaks’ sound design—credited solely to Lynch—exacerbates, whether it’s the comic splat of Cooper punching Dora in “Part 1” or the supersonic boom of the gloved punches in “Part 15,” which somehow rip a hole in the hot riff-rock of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” These exaggerations are never funny, exactly. Rather, they render the violence unnervingly strong, an effect which, alongside the miasmic pace of the show and the quiet industrial menace of the rest of the soundtrack, creates a mood altogether more austere than the original series. Even the needle-drop moments on The Return, by ZZ Top or Booker T & The MGs, feel less like the stylistic choices of old and more like the mundane music of the world itself.

In fact, where its predecessor oozed sensuality, an all-encompassing lust rendered perverse by Killer Bob, this show’s sprawling cast of freaks, creeps, and immaculate-looking women exist within a largely sexless world. Relationships exist but passion does not; sex seems to be something engaged in meaninglessly or as a precursor to violence. When Gordon Cole chirps, “Last night I had another Monica Bellucci dream,” you don’t expect a utilitarian dump of philosophical exposition to ensue, but that is exactly what you get. Compare the cold marriages and broken romances of The Return with the keening, unrequited lusts of the original show, the criss-crossing love triangles and expressionistic longing, the agony people felt over just wanting to touch—and corrupt—Laura Palmer. What has been removed in The Return is more than just the music; it’s the warmth. In Lynch’s typically dualistic cosmos, The Return shows a universe drained of light, youth, love, and sex. It’s no wonder it’s gone silent.

A clue to this shift might be seen in one of the show’s other great obsessions—that is, the effect of the intervening 25 years of technological progress on these characters’ lives. The show has varied wildly in its depiction of cellphones, flat-screen TVs, and omnipresent personal computers, but they have, generally speaking, been seen as agents of intrusion and seclusion. Think of Sarah Palmer watching an enormous flat-screen shoved into her room; Lucy and Andy’s inability to adapt to online shopping and cellphones; Dr. Jacoby’s descent into full InfoWars opportunism, hawking his wares with conspiracy theories. Off-handed shots show Sheriff Truman sitting in a darkened room looking at images of fish on a laptop, or paintings removed from the walls to make for more blinking screens. There’s a sense of technophobia to it all: sex and music replaced by silence and screens.

And yet there is an enormous exception in The Roadhouse, which leavens all that digital chilliness with the analog warmth of a lived-in, familiar space in which an anonymous public sways appreciatively to the glorious refractions of Lynch’s influence. (His son even plays in one of the bands, Trouble.) In a show peppered with references to Lynch’s entire career, a Return about a return, The Roadhouse is a place of hard-won rest. It’d be a stretch to call the bar a simulacrum of the internet, but it does strikingly emulate the way the original show’s musical influence has echoed over the past 25 years, a sole bastion of Lynchian life—which is to say, nightlife.

These are the stakes if we’re to take The Giant’s suggestion to “listen to the sounds.” Lynch has shown, through his career, a penchant for riotous climaxes—ostentatious imagery, cathartic beauty, harrowing violence—and the pace of The Return is already quickening. But it’d be inadvisable to expect a tidy summation of all these narrative threads, the endless numerological speculation, the names and non sequiturs. In an era of feverish fan theories, The Return seems primed to drive people insane with arcana, but the music speaks something almost confessional in its sincerity. It is the story of aging people, shuffling around in an increasingly digital and alien world, looking for glimpses of warmth and youth. They find it fleetingly in a whiff of coffee or a lost love. They hire brunettes to help them recreate it in tragic onstage tableaux. They chase it through conspiracy theories and electrical sockets. If any of them finally find the lost current of beauty in this barren world, the shock will sound like heaven.