Our long goodbye to Jóhann Jóhannsson continues with the release of his final film score, co-composed with frequent collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir. The score is elegant, powerful, and memorable. Unfortunately, these words have not been applied to the movie, typically described as “slow.” But as a long line of religious movies has produced an abundance of scores either tepid or bombastic (we’ll be kind and not name names), it was only a matter of time before the script was flipped. Will the score to Mary Magdalene have the enduring power of Ennio Morricone’s The Mission and Peter Gabriel’s Passion? Only time will tell. For now, we can only report that it’s strong enough to be considered a possibility.
There’s a certain sadness associated with the fact that we are hearing some of Jóhannsson’s last music. Add this to the inherent emotion of the subject matter, and it would be fair to suggest a coloring of our appreciation. Yet we also have a solid defense: the fact that we’ve appreciated everything Guðnadóttir and Jóhannsson have released separately or together up to this point. Seeing these names together is a virtual guarantee of quality. Once again, they live up to our expectations, and even surpass them, as the score stands so well on its own ~ much better than Jóhannsson’s recent score to The Mercy, which included tracks from prior albums.
When communicating such lofty themes as faith and resurrection, one needs to establish a sense of mystery and beauty, while avoiding over-reverence and treacle. It also helps to inject a note of fear. These composers are up to the task. Opening track “Cana” even contains the slightest hint of Gabriel’s “Of These, Hope” ~ only a tendril, but enough to catch the attention. The main theme enters in the keyboards of “The Mustard Seed,” accompanied by breath and string and revisited in “Resurrection.” “Messiah” offers restrained awe, to the point that one considers not seeing the film ~ could the visuals really match this subtle grace? But “Goats” is the go-to track, the one that pushes the album over the edge by not playing to expectations. Marked by pounding, warlike drums, it seems more Sicario than salvation. From this point forward, the album bleeds an accumulating weight. We all know this story, and from any angle it’s still the same ~ crushing sadness followed by indescribable joy. It’s a testament to the composers that they hold the latter on a leash, respecting the fact that the former is not wiped away ~ it remains, and will always remain, part of the tale. But it’s also comforting to note that in his final months, Jóhannsson’s work dovetailed with a gospel of eternal hope. (Richard Allen)