Thomas Newman’s score for 1917 is a sadly dull affair, consisting mostly of wandering ambience with occasional stylistic callbacks to Hans Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line.
Slow, melancholic strings open the album’s first cue, entitled 1917. Almost immediately the music sets an air of solemnity, of sadness, even despair. The track itself comes in at just shy of eighty seconds long, but even with that short a runtime it manages to pretty perfectly capture the solemn reflection that most now feel when considering the First World War. It’s a powerful atmospheric introduction, and a very well-crafted album opener. Up The Down Trench then kicks the pace up a notch, adding light percussion in a semi-tense build-up-to-action manner similar to elements of Newman’s previous compositional work for Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre. Despite its rather extensive six minute length, the cue doesn’t really add much to the score aside from percussive mood setting, as the musical tension described above is (unfortunately) pretty much all it has to offer. Quiet, creepy electronics then form much of the baseline of Gehenna, with a piano making an infrequent and particularly sombre appearance until the piece reaches a loud strings-heavy crescendo before then closing out as ominously as it began.
Heartfelt strings are the enjoyable centrepiece of The Night Window, where the first glimmer of properly orchestral Thomas Newman score starts to shine through. At about two minutes in, dramatic brass and rumbling drums then join the strings for a loud and rather epic musical moment before things then sadly die back down again. Tense electronics then open Tripwire, which over the course of the cue’s two minutes slowly increase both in intensity and pitch in a curiously similar manner to that of Hans Zimmer’s Why So Serious? from The Dark Knight. The sombre piano then returns with strings in A Bit Of Tin for a few minutes of warm, methodical and rather relaxing orchestral bliss. So far, the album has been quite oddly twofold, consisting of quite elegant Newman-style orchestra on the one hand and harsh, in-your-face electronics on the other. One thing that has been pretty consist however is that its all atmosphere i.e. no thematic material whatsoever, which is a bit of a shame.
Lockhouse continues down the atmospheric path, opening with ominous-sounding electronics that then build up rapidly around the ninety second mark where tense percussion joins the fray. This anxious ambience continues for another two minutes before then coming to a now rather predictable loud crescendo and then fading out. Strings return in Blake And Schofield, though curiously with the gloomy electronics still lurking in the background during the cue’s opening seconds. Melancholic woodwinds then arrive about midway through the piece, delivering a sense of stillness and sorrow that manages to pretty perfectly recapture that mournful atmosphere established by the album’s first cue. I must admit, I sighed at the next track (entitled Milk) purely because of its absurd ten minute runtime. This score so far seems intent on being primarily ambient, making the prospect of a ten minute setpiece quite…dull to say the least. Haunting electronics and a solemn piano form the first four, before the music then rapidly builds into a rather hair-raising burst of terror that then fades as quickly as it arrived. The remaining four minutes are pure atmosphere, and by that I mean literally just moody, electronic nothingness.
This rather downcast mood continues through into Écoust-Saint-Mein, with the now pretty well established electronics forming much of the track’s musical backbone. Rumbling percussion makes a brief appearance at about sixty seconds in, at which point things take a turn for the creepy as more electronics arrive to set this unnerving and particularly eerie atmosphere before the cue then fades away. Funeral-esque vocals and a pensive piano then thankfully bring things back into orchestral territory with Les Arbres, where for three minutes you can simply sit back and let the cue’s contemplative ambience gently wash over. Enjoy it while you can though, as the electronics then return in Engländer, lurking quietly in the background initially before then building dramatic intensity at the end for a loud, almost grandiose burst of score – and one that once again lasts for but a few seconds before then simply ending. Croisilles Wood then roots itself firmly in mood-setting with a rather wistful piano and unusually gentle electronics, resulting in two minutes of pure musical…mediocrity.
Sixteen Hundred Men is the standout cue. It’s one of those pieces of music that you can just tell is going to be the best thing about the album right as it begins. Light yet tense percussion alongside quietly gallant brass starts things off, and the music then gently begins to build. Before long strings then join the fray, accompanying the continually increasing intensity of the orchestra until finally at the four minute mark we are treated to the epic burst of heroic score that (let’s be honest) we’ve been waiting the entire album for. Overall the track is easily the most enjoyable cue so far, though I have to say it bears great similarity in both compositional and structural style to that of Zimmer’s Journey To The Line, which does lessen its emotional impact slightly, at least for me. Mentions In Dispatches then returns the music to its moodier and more atmospheric state, though thankfully this doesn’t last for long as Come Back To Us then brings the entire album full circle, ending Newman’s score with heartfelt, melancholic strings in a very similar manner to that of the very first cue. As musical conclusions go, this is a pretty damn good one.
That being said, overall Thomas Newman’s score for 1917 is decidedly unremarkable. The vast majority of the album consists of atmospheric mood-setting, with harsh electronics unfortunately being the composer’s primary means of achieving this. The purely orchestral moments are few and far between, an aspect that is made even more of a shame by the fact that these moments are by far the best parts of the score (see cue 1917). The album’s standout piece of music is also a pretty shameless Journey To The Line-Lite, which all-in just kind of piles on top to make the already pretty dull album somehow even less interesting than it already was. The icing on the now rather unfortunate cake is that there is also no thematic material to the score whatsoever. None. So…overall, it’s a bit of a shame really, as there are elements of Newman’s score that are good (see Come Back To Us) but sadly none that last long enough to capture interest.
1917 is a missed opportunity, to say the least.
Standout Cue: 17. Sixteen Hundred Men