As meticulously crafted as everything else about his films, Wes Anderson’s soundtracks are indispensable primers for the musically agnostic movie dork. Never dug into The Kinks? Cue up The Darjeeling Limited. Ignorant of The Who? Rushmore is there. Is your Bowie knowledge lacking? The Life Aquatic has you covered (in Portuguese, to boot). It’s a move right out of the Max Fischer playbook: Drop the right signifiers, amp up your confidence, and never let the other guy see you sweat. Anderson’s soundtracks can form the spine of a pretty respectable record collection—or at least, give you the quick, digested version of one. That’s especially true if, like me, you were a teen who spent more time playing through the cave levels of video games than spelunking through The Velvet Underground. Even today, I’m not a “music guy.” I have songs and artists I love, but I lack the insatiable hunger to constantly imbibe new sounds and craft new shards of identity from the pieces. When it comes to music, I generally have to fake it. And for me, The Royal Tenenbaums was the ideal soundtrack for pulling off that kind of deception.
Tenenbaums was the moment that Wes Anderson really became “Wes Anderson,” when the stylistic quirks of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore solidified into an often-brilliant, fitfully twee filmmaking ethos that rendered him a character right out of one his own movies. It’s the archetypal Anderson film, a cinematic dollhouse run with clockwork precision, staffed with talented performers rattling off dialogue that always sounds like it’s been translated directly from a mysterious, more emotionally resonant tongue. The soundtrack is a huge part of its vibe, setting a melancholy tone Anderson would return to again and again, and—as with Rushmore before it—striving for timelessness by relying heavily on classic rock and pop songs. As it crisscrosses the Atlantic throughout the ’60s and ’70s (and beyond), it offers clueless neophytes a crash course on the most influential music of those eras, covering everything from the British Invasion to weirdo Bob Dylan experiments, while even bringing in punk bands like The Clash and the Ramones.
Ultimately, it may not have taught me to appreciate all that music with too much depth, but that’s far from Anderson’s fault. After all, I wasn’t exactly the best student. In fact, I flat-out ignored The Royal Tenenbaums when it was released in 2001 (in my defense, I was in high school, and I thought it looked dull and weird). But after a friend dragged me to The Life Aquatic a few years later, I quickly fell in backwards love with Anderson’s earlier films—Rushmore especially. Still, my fixation on my new favorite director didn’t extend to properly digging into his music choices. While I was galvanized by the rebellious spirit of The Creation’s “Making Time” blaring over Rushmore, I also thought it was a Rolling Stones song. (Blame Napster for that one.) That only took me about five years to figure out, but fully appreciating Anderson’s soundtracks—and why they worked on me, a person who wasn’t particularly immersed in music—took a lot longer.
Take Nick Drake’s “Fly” or Emitt Rhodes’ “Lullaby,” both from Tenenbaums. I have a relationship with both of these artists that you could describe as “Wikipedia-quality,” yet these two songs resonated deeply with me primarily because they so embodied Anderson’s films. The acoustic strumming, the sad-boy voices, the dreamy vibe—all reminiscent of so many of the director’s scenes, rife with meaningful looks and wry sorrow. I have many fond memories of letting these songs be sad for me as the Tenenbaums soundtrack spun next to The Wallflowers and Ben Folds on my iPod. The feeling of despair tinged with optimism both songs evoke is key to the emotional effect of Anderson’s movies; even now, listening to them gives me a rare glimpse at the guarded part of my soul that music can sometimes just barely touch.
I was similarly struck by “These Days,” one of the album’s two selections (along with “The Fairest Of The Seasons”) from German singer Nico. Fashion model, heroin addict, Andy Warhol ingenue, Velvet Underground chanteuse, Nico is one of those unique countercultural polymaths who doesn’t seem to have a direct analogue in our modern era (and knowing those things about her is a great way to score instant music cred, by the by). Recorded in 1967 for Chelsea Girl, “These Days” is a cover of a song by Nico’s friend Jackson Browne and a natural choice for the centerpiece of the entire album—not to mention, the ideal music for a smoky, sad-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow.
Tenenbaums is a nostalgic movie. In almost every frame, it yearns for a bygone era, mimicking its characters as they scramble for some aspect of their early, abandoned brilliance. “These Days” offers a harsher assessment of those yesterdays. Despite the sentimental promise of its tinkling guitars and idyllic strings, Nico’s husky voice is always there to remind you that we’re ruined in the present by fucking up the past. “I’ve had a lover,” she whisper-croons. “Don’t think I’ll take another these days.” Out of all the musicians collected on this album, Nico is probably the one I had the least chance of running into, and for every time I’ve muttered, “Don’t remind me of my failures, I had not forgotten them” while feeling like a screwup, I have Wes Anderson to thank.
The Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says” similarly crept up on me, particularly in recent years, digging in deeper every time it shuffles into my ears. Like “These Days,” it’s deceptively pretty, while hiding a darker edge of alienation and a hint of familial strife that keeps things from getting too light. I don’t relish talking about this song, because I don’t know shit about The Velvet Underground; I’m the guy who confuses “Heroin” with Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” But even I can recognize its important function within the film, where it bridges the gap between The Royal Tenenbaums’ mopey kids and the more raucous sounds that surround Gene Hackman’s energetic patriarch.
The wilder, “Royal” side of the soundtrack is where we find the film’s most memorable musical moment, Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” a boisterous song that’s almost too peppy for its surrounding company—which is sort of the point. (It’s also totally confusing; 28 years after my dad first played it for me, I still can’t figure out who “Rosie, the queen of Corona” is supposed to be.) Its quirkiness is matched by Bob Dylan’s bizarre “Wigwam,” though that song’s swanning horns have an aggression to them that’s atypical, but welcome, for Anderson’s oeuvre.
While there’s also nothing like a deep-ish Dylan cut from his critically pilloried Self Portrait to convince people you’re a tastemaker, the same can’t really be said for Tenenbaums’ punk offerings. Knowing The Clash and Ramones counts as basic musical competency, although Anderson’s specific selections here introduce a side of both bands those only passingly familiar might not expect, at least. Both of them are used to underscore scenes on the Tenenbaums’ rebellious Margot: The Clash’s “Police And Thieves” offers a slow and patient burn, the sort of anarchy you can leave quietly playing in the background, while the Ramones’ “Judy Is A Punk,” for all its buzz-saw energy, is surprisingly pretty and melodic. (After all, even punk has to bend itself to the Anderson ideal.) In the film, the latter soundtracks the montage of Margot’s secretly defiant coming of age, a reminder that appearances can be deceiving.
Speaking of keeping up appearances, there’s a tendency for fans writing about Wes Anderson to rough him up a little, before his harshest critics can do it for you. Anderson has become a popular punching bag, slapped with “twee” labels (see above) and accusations of being so devoted to irony that it creates total emotional detachment. When Anderson and his career-long music supervisor Randall Poster drop something like a harpsichord cover of “Hey Jude” or a song from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the arch sentimentality only reinforces those criticisms. But there’s a reason the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here” still works despite being cartoonish, and even after becoming the subject of so many Arrested Development memes: It’s nakedly emotional, a beautiful, universally felt expression of sadness. The Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s rendition of The Beatles standard pulls a similar trick, stripping away the lyrics and all the nuance to leave nothing but joy, slowly rising. The emotional response to that simplicity is a pure one; to confuse it for irony is only cynicism.
Mutato Muzika isn’t a composer, by the way, but rather the name for the production company headed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Over the course of several collaborations, Mothersbaugh has become synonymous with Anderson, to the point that the two were supposedly working on a theme park together in 2014, and in many ways his music has defined, refined, and shaped the tone of Anderson’s films. Mothersbaugh’s work on Tenenbaums is more restrained than usual; there’s no soaring electronic opuses like The Life Aquatic’s “Ned’s Theme Take 1.” But it still invests the album with a lively soul. “Sonata For Cello And Piano In F Minor”—originally credited as “Lindbergh Palace Hotel Suite” to Mothersbaugh himself, but later renamed and attributed to Romanian composer George Enescu—offers a wide-ranging overture for the entire film, occasionally dipping into reggae or drum-kit cacophony as the onscreen antics demand. But at its core, the song’s pulsing cello leads the listener through the Tenenbaum family’s entire, complicated inner life. (It also makes for a great jogging song, if that particular madness afflicts you.)
That unusually close tie between Anderson’s films and Mothersbaugh’s compositions is due to Anderson being such a diligently technical filmmaker, to the point of being kind of weird about it. In interviews, for example, he almost always focuses on minute, concrete details, rather than more nebulous ideas like themes. (See also this Moonrise Kingdom-era interview, where he takes a question about the Tenenbaums soundtrack and somehow uses it to drill into the financial consequences of letting a record play too long.) Both Mothersbaugh and Poster have noted just how hands-on he is with devising his movies’ scores and soundtracks: “When I write music for his films, he likes to be around while I record it,” Mothersbaugh told The Believer a few years ago. “I will say that the music in Wes’ films is always exactly the way he wants it,” Poster told Noisey in turn.
That’s true even in the case of the soundtrack’s one real outlier, a modern song amid an album that otherwise stays firmly rooted in an Old World sensibility. I’ve written before about how Anderson uses Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay,” which plays beneath the scene of Richie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide. Like Luke Wilson slicing away his shaggy ’70s haircut and beard, choosing that 1995 song is a deliberate removal of artifice, the one time Anderson strips away his movie’s period-piece costume and lets modern sounds flow in. As the color palette shifts from those warm earth tones into the harsh, clinical blue light of that awful bathroom, the cutesy touches stop fucking flat, all of it powered by Smith’s persistent, strumming guitar and the evident pain leaking out of his voice. As “These Days” is to a half-heartbroken longing for the past, “Needle” is to the momentary pain of the present. And while Smith supposedly hated the way Anderson took a song about addiction and set it to a scene about suicide, it’s close to perfect here.
This is the one place where I don’t have to fake it. When my friend Alice messaged me on AIM in 2003, crying because Elliott Smith had died, I admit I didn’t really know who he was. But that night, I fell into a hole of his music, listening to songs like “Waltz #2,” and crying myself over lines like “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” It took me a while to connect Smith to the humming, insistent song that plays during that harrowing Royal Tenenbaums scene, but once it clicked, “Needle In The Hay” began to exert an almost hypnotic hold on me. There have been times in my life when I’ve been unable to resist the urge to whisper Wilson’s, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” as I listen to it. There have been times in my life when—like my dad before me—it hasn’t entirely been a joke.
I’ve listened to it hundreds of times over the years, and every time I feel the despair well up, half-smile at the little quips that aren’t really (“getting good marks”), and hear a man in agony do his damnedest to convey that feeling through his song. It’s painful, and powerful, and beautiful. And the scary part of not being “a music guy” is that I don’t know if I could have had that feeling without Anderson’s contribution. Stumbling onto Anderson’s soundtracks was like having a brilliant, slightly smart-assed teacher invite me over to flip through their record collection, providing me with the spark of a musical evolution that, no matter how lax I’ve been about pursuing it, has also been a personal one. Without Anderson to guide me, I don’t know that I could have stumbled into it on my own. I’m not sure that it’s in me to do so. But I’m grateful I didn’t have to try.