Clint Mansell’s Loving Vincent Soundtrack: A Darkly Familiar Masterpiece

by delarue

Is the soundtrack to a film which deals with madness Halloweenish enough for you? If so, check out Clint Mansell’s score for Loving Vincent, streaming at Spotify. Mansell has a long resume writing eclectic and frequently brooding music for all sorts of films, but it’s horror that he really excels at. This isn’t a horror film per se, but it is relentlessly dark, and Mansell runs with that all the way to an ending  we can all see coming a mile away. Or can we?

The opening theme has a bell-like pulse, played on the piano: does this relate to the epilepsy that plagued Vincent Van Gogh his whole life? Possibly. Mansell is unsurpassed at building variations on simple, uneasy riffs, and this is a classic example: where guitar comes in the first time around, the second time the whole orchestra delivers that insistent melody, then goes all dark and lush.

The opaquely atmospheric Eternity’s Gate more than hints at a very familiar, doomed narrative. The strings pick up, alluding to what sounds like a windswept British folk melody, then we get to hear Marguerite Gachet At the Piano, stately and austere. The wonderfully titled Still Life with Absinthe sounds like that for maybe half a minute before that persistent central theme returns and by now, it’s obvious it’s never going away.

A somber, slow piano-and-strings mood piece continues the foreshadowing. Five Flowers in a Vase. Like several of the segments here, this mirrors a famous Van Gogh tableau and allows the gloom to rise a bit amidst a haze of strings, but the clouds never quite clear. Next we get Wheatfield With Crows, with its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes that finally, nine tracks into the score, break through into a scream.

Thatched Roof in Chaponval is more calmly atmospheric but equally dark. Mansell artfully takes the title theme halfspeed in Blossoming Chestnut Trees and turns it inside out for a bit…until the grim low-midrange piano melody returns. Likewise, strings sweep through The Sower with Setting Sun, but again, the echoey gloom never lets up.

Mansell sidesteps the challenge of evoking Starry Night Over the Rhone with a brief, majestic orchestral crescendo; the album ends with Lianne La Havas singing a tenderly evocative, low-key chamber-pop cover of the famous Don McLean hit that far surpasses the well-intentioned but weepy original, until she tries to get all faux-gospel at the end. There are better ways to get inspired than watching American Idol before you go into the studio for a vocal take.