Carter Burwell’s stylistically shapeshifting orchestral soundtrack to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is like no other Coen Brothers movie score you’ve heard. Don’t expect the scathing, spot-on hilarity of O Brother Where Art Thou. In between moments of sarcasm, snark and gallows humor, pretty much everything here is relentlessly bleak. The record – streaming at Spotify – has a total of 23 tracks, most of them vignettes less than two minutes long.
A baroque guitar waltz with languid mariachi trumpet, an almost defiantly out-of-tune saloon piano miniature and a faux-Straussian scenario with strings and shivery resonator guitar set the stage, leaving no doubt where the rest of this is going. Burwell twists the baroque of the opening credits into an allusive horror theme and then southwestern gothic classical.
A surreal harp-and-strings interlude sounds like something you might encounter in one of the trippier moments on a late 60s Moody Blues album, followed by muted faux-gospel and numerous allusions to Irving Berlin’s biggest hit. The gentle bucolic ambience grows more windswept and ominous, in a Lynchian vein.
There are a handful of over-the-top hickoid vocal pieces as well. Tim Blake Nelson, star of the film, sings the campy, parched-earth western theme Cool Water as well as a silly singalong send-off to a cowpoke nobody liked. Willie Watson joins in for When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, which is even more morbid. Brendan Gleeson also contributes wintry a-cappella Celtic gloom.
Ghost riders cross the sky and then retreat like Nazgul back to the shadows of Mordor, so the dirge at the end hardly comes as a surprise. Sarcasm and irony don’t always translate musically, but Burwell really nails them here, with surprising subtlety. One suspects Shostakovich – renowned film composer that he was – couldn’t have done a better job.