It’s only fair, one supposes, after Jonny Greenwood’s successful career pivot to soundtracking films (having scored two all-time greats in There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread) for Thom Yorke to do the same. Radiohead are in no rush to make new material; their legacy is more than secured at this point and with the tremendous late-career record A Moon-Shaped Pool under their belt, there’s reason enough for fans to be satisfied for a long while. But it does raise the concern of just how Radiohead-y Yorke’s soundtrack to Suspiria would turn out to be, amplified by the fact that it accompanies a remake of a horror classic. Thankfully, just as the remake itself differed from the original in a respectful way that allowed it its own identity, so too does Yorke’s score work studiously to serve its function, allowing a vast and vibrant sonic space for him to grow ideas.
That is not to say that there aren’t, shall we say, Yorkeisms on the record. But they are tasteful and few, keeping his vocals or idiosyncratic approach to chord changes and strumming the guitar contained to only a few tracks over the hour-and-a-half span. And, in truth, it’s good that they appear; you don’t hire Thom Yorke to not be Thom Yorke at all, so he handles those expectations gracefully, offering a scant few moments in a knowing nod before returning to the proceedings. The soundtracks is, for the most part, analogue synths built toward a John Carpenter sense of dread. If Yorke’s solo work typically contains either spare ideas or ones that wouldn’t quite fit the Radiohead mold, this soundtrack is a deep-dive into sounds that group would never make. Yorke takes his position very seriously here, apparently deeply aware of the iconic stature of the original film and the significance of soundtracks in horror cinema. His choice of dissonances on a piano, eerie not-quite-in-key pads jutting against other instruments demonstrates an amount of either study or lifelong passion in the material. The great success of the soundtrack is, if you were not informed of who made it or their pedigree, this would read as a competent and disturbing piece of horror, without too much of a whiff of any attached ideas.
Yorke errs on the side of sparseness, not unlike doom metallers Bell Witch, who evoke similar kinds of decrepit senses of longing and loss and lingering trauma by suspension rather than suffocation. The songs contained here feel largely febrile, tender, like they might break or burst in an instant; their short run-times feel like a confirmation of this thought, like they are brief ghosts that attempt and fail to materialize into full songs. In the context of a horror soundtrack, this is a powerful sentiment, one that touches the core of loss at the center of Suspiria. It is easy and cheap to make spooky sounds; it is more difficult and more rewarding to cultivate a sense of vulnerability and lingering pain, both physical and emotional, that edges toward a catharsis it never receives. Yorke is, to his credit, well-versed in that kind of thematic surge in songwriting, albeit in a totally different sonic context. But it seems his years with his ear to the ground of experimental jazz and electronic music, not to mention his bandmate’s fixation on experimental and contemporary classical music, has provided a fertile ground of ideas for him to explore.
The most important characteristic of a soundtrack is how well it pairs with, highlights, diverges and ultimately intensifies the film against which it is situated. This cannot be judged when listening to a recording. But the second most important characteristic, especially when it is issued on disc for a broader listening public, is how cohesive that soundtrack works and flows on its own. On this accord, despite its lengthy run time split across two discs, Yorke’s Suspiria soundtrack works phenomenally. This is partly because, with this interwoven set of micro-songs and dark ambient tension pieces, he rarely expends enough of your emotional energy to tire you by the end. A comparison: Drake’s record Scorpion was two discs of songs with no interludes and was an absolute chore to work through, not necessarily because individual songs were bad but because there were simply too many without enough excellence inside them or variation between them to justify it; in contrast, each piece on the Suspiria soundtrack explores a small piece of terrain, sometimes for only a minute, making each moment feel like a slight departure from the previous moment. The pieces interlock, moving only a scant amount from track to track but amounting to a long journey through a dimly lit twisting hallway
One hopes, given the success of the set both within the context of its adjoining film and on its own, that Suspiria is only the first of Thom Yorke’s work within cinema. His more contemporary experimental touch compared to Greenwood’s is a fascinating space to wander, one he allows to be sonically haunted by the anxieties, angsts, and tensions we have witnessed in his other, more popular music over the past decades. It also functions as a fascinating insight into a major all-time great artist, recontextualizing his work beyond both the context of a band or even discrete songfulness as in his other solo material, turning in sketches and fragments that are no less compelling than even some of his most tightly-written material. It reveals the greatness behind Yorke, something that gets swallowed up sometimes in endless anniversary discussions of the great records and songs under his belt but sometimes evades a deeper truth: he is a master of mood and communication of mood, endlessly inventive in ways to conjure a broken and jagged literary tension and moodiness wrapped in fragmenting imperfect beauty. Suspiria is both a confirmation of those long-known talents and, hopefully, the opening of yet another door.