Burn After ReadingSome film scores – and that’s what this is, despite its self-classification as a soundtrack – are simply not meant to be heard outside of the context of the film. Sans moving images, such scores can come off drab, unimaginative and even plain boring. So it is with Carter Burwell’s compositons for the Coen brothers’ new film Burn After Reading. Without the larger-than-life characters (played almost entirely by Academy Award winners) that inhabit the film and give the story its true life, this score feels like fairly standard spy movie kitsch, with a few slightly emotional interludes (“Linda Looks For Love (Parts 1 and 2).”

It’s not that the music is poorly done – Burwell has collaborated with the Coens for over 20 years now, so there’s no question that he knows what he’s doing – it’s just that the over-the-top music he’s created as the backdrop for this picture just doesn’t play well on its own. For example, a track like “Breaking and Entering” works in the film because it’s being sold by the dopey expressions of Brad Pitt’s clueless gym worker Chad Feldheimer – a comedic delight, by the way. But on its own the track falls flat, coming off overdone and overzealous, like something out of a Steven Seagal made-for-tv special. Other tracks don’t really even work during the film. Take “A Higher Patriotism” for instance. Framing an odd shot of CIA operative Oswald Cox (John Malkovich) discussing his memoirs with his father, this bit of music swells operatically, though there doesn’t appear to be anything driving the crescendo.

A big problem with the album is the repetitive nature of the music. There’s a distinct lack of highs and lows here, giving the album a rather dry sensibility, making it hard for listeners to really get into the music. As standard spy movie music, Burwell’s music does well. But there’s nothing here to really set the album apart. The opening and closing tracks – “Earth Zoom (In)” and “Earth Zoom (Out)” – are two of the more interesting pieces, using forcefully militaristic sounds to enforce the tone of the album. But where these bookends feel tongue-in-cheek in the film itself, on the album they just serve to confuse. This is one score that didn’t need to be released in album form. If you’d like to hear Carter Burwell’s latest work, take the time to hear it the way it was meant to be heard: as a backdrop for the latest Coen brothers dark comedy. 

Zach’s Rating: C-
Perfect For: A soundtrack for playing Battleship
Stay Away if: You expect a score to stand on its own, outside the film
If you only buy one, make it this one: “Earth Zoom (In)”

To purchase the soundtrack for Burn After Reading, visit Amazon

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