Finally! It’s taken nine months for Rockstar Games to release a soundtrack to 2018’s #1 video game, Red Dead Redemption II ~ as long as it would take to produce an actual baby. We write “a” soundtrack rather than “the” soundtrack (though there are actually two), because this still isn’t all the music. The game can take 60 hours to play (depending on one’s level of expertise), and much has been made of the fact that over 110 musicians were involved in creating the original score. We’re still holding out hope for a USB stick containing all of the music, even the incidental cues ~ and if this happens, it will receive serious consideration for Album of the Year. But for now, we’ve got two digital albums that may one day find their way to vinyl. The red one concentrates on the vocal tracks (although a few instrumental pieces worm their way in), the black one on the score.
There’s already been some consternation over the choices. The vocal album doesn’t include fan favorite House Building Theme, among others, and there was certainly room ~ in a digital release, there’s always room, although the fact that each album fits on a CD implies that physical formats are planned. Follow the link on that wonderful YouTube channel and one will discover 67 tracks, nearly double the 35 found on both albums combined. And why put instrumental tracks on the vocal half of the release? To be fair, only Rhiannon Giddens’ “Mountain Banjo” deserves to be on the black album instead of the red, but it would have been nice to highlight some of the other vocal performances.
The black album is spectacular, a reminder of the game’s visceral power. It’s a fine follow-up to Bill Elm and Woody Jackson‘s first RDR score, now nearly a decade old. Despite the fact that Rockstar wanted to avoid Morricone themes this time out, the influence of Morricone is splattered across this score ~ a good thing, no apology needed. The whistles, the steel guitar, the Wrecking Crew’s original mandolin and more combine to form an aural image of the Old West, circa 1899. Colin Stetson, Arca, Senyawa and other modern composers connect the music to now. Fans of Murder by Death and The Builders and the Butchers will find plenty to love here. The set flows incredibly well, retaining its energy across 73 minutes. Perhaps it’s better to call this Red Dead Redemption II’s Greatest Hits.
Woody Jackson is the main composer this time out. His Wild West themes are instantly recognizable; “Outlaws in the West” erupts into big chords, then sets the mood with flute and castanet. Jackson’s solo pieces bracket the album, leaving the big middle for experimentation. But as early as “Mrs. Sadie Adler, Widow,” we encounter something different from the first RDR: staccato strings normally found in suspense scores. This decision pushes past the imagined territory into areas unknown, much as the game itself. The other performers expand on this compositional choice, to the extent that late tracks such as “Fleeting Joy” (with Colin Stetson) hardly sound like the West at all; nor do they sound like rock as much as an orchestral suite. But all it takes is one chord.
One of the best ways to listen apart from the game is to go for a drive. The music sounds great in a car: like an audiobook without those pesky words. One can imagine that one is going on a journey, headed into dangerous territory, perhaps to rescue a family under siege. The midpoint arrives with the yelp at the launch of Track 11, “Welcome to the New World.” One might think it’s scalpers, but it’s really just Senyawa, the Indonesian experimental duo that has been called “The Weirdest Band in the World.” They’re not that weird ~ we suspect that writers are underexposed ~ but they are original, and a real find for the soundtrack. Drone, throat singing and indistinguishable language mimic the reaction of settlers to Native Americans. The three-track Senyawa section is one of the album’s most remarkable, and is followed by the aforementioned “Fleeting Joy,” perhaps the album’s best single track, building on the groundwork laid by the preceding pieces. This is followed by the most extreme track, “Icarus and Friends,” presented by Stetson along with David Ralicke (Sons of Anarchy) and Jeff Silverman (Aloe Black). The music rises into a swirl before crashing, leaving Jackson and Arca to pick up the pieces. From this point forward, it’s Jackson’s show once more. The vocals on “Blood Feuds, Ancient and Modern” imitate a theremin, providing the score with a “The Great Gig in the Sky” moment. The composer then comes full circle, constructing an aural ending as satisfying as the game’s finale.
We are left with two ways to judge The Music of Red Dead Redemption II (Original Score): as video gamers and as music fans. As a reflection of the game, this release is maddeningly incomplete; but as an album, it’s damn near perfect. We can argue all day about what should and should not have been included, but at the end of that day, the choices stand up well. We’re seldom in a position where we want to lavish more praise on an album, yet show restraint; we’ll save that for the ultimate edition. (Richard Allen)