The Unsexy Centerpiece of an Iconic Soundtrack
Soundtracks to films are usually comprised of “sexy” songs. Many times, it feels like filmmakers get enamored with the idea of a pop single that perfectly captures the essence of a scene or a moment in a film and then try to replicate that same sound-plus-vision phenomenon 10-15 times for the purposes of soundtracking. But there is a fallacy in this logic: life isn’t always sexy and jam-packed with movie-worthy moments. And while writers and directors are often all too eager to capture a form of “realism” in aspects relating to both the visual tone and the plot details, they sometimes seem to prefer song selections that skew away from more evenhanded, low-key entries. Some auteurs, Wes Anderson springs to mind but several others also fit the bill, have recognized in recent years that the soundtrack album can have nearly as much emotional import as the film, but in order to achieve that it must save space for meditative numbers that prop up the “big moment” songs by creating a distance and keeping everything in perspective.
Danny Boyle has excelled at this across his varied filmography and given many of his films an unmistakable musical pulse that has either served to enliven the proceedings (Slumdog Millionaire) or kick already-dead horses (A Life Less Ordinary), but that has always engendered a reaction. Enter “Sing” by Blur, included on the soundtrack to the mid-90s masterpiece Trainspotting, based on Irvine Welsh's transgressive novel of the same name. Although, truth be told, it can perhaps be more accurately described as found “within” the song cycle. Essentially the centerpiece of the album, “Sing” gives the soundtrack an element of beating-heart numbness that shudders throughout the rest of the collection. Alongside rock heavy hitters like Iggy Pop, Pulp, New Order and anthemic rave-indebted turns by Leftfield and Underworld, Blur’s song is pedestrian, but it’s pedestrian in a way that serves the songs around it.
Structurally, "Sing" begins with a nearly solitary piano playing just a few chords repetitively with enough added reverb to give the listener feelings of both physical remove and psychic detachment. Bass guitar slides into the frame with a riff that wouldn’t be out of place as the backbone of a more dancefloor-ready rock song, and functionally unflashy drums arrive to give the melody a set of splashy rhythmic guardrails. Damon Albarn’s trademark deadpan is used to its fullest, relaying lyrics about being unable to feel, questions of existential worth, and the loss of his childlike mind as a side effect of the progression into adulthood - but then each chorus brings an all-out multi-part belting of “Ah, ah, ah, ahhhh…sing to me”, a frantic but endearing request for the lullaby that may yet still reach that “child in your head” if only it is sung loud enough for him or her to hear. As the pattern keeps the same pace throughout (no change-up bridges, no drum fills), an extra layer of tonal dissonance rises to the fore, like guitar strings being bowed and then played back in reverse. Given the easygoing-if-humorless nature of the rest of the elements this shambolic component registers as all the more disconcerting: the eerie feel of something damaged and raw hiding underneath the sheen of a daily routine that would appear normal from the outside.
Adding to its emotional resonance, the song's placement in the narrative of the film arrives at one of its many lowpoints (spoiler alert, I guess, but the movie is over 20 years old, so…): the protagonist Renton and his mate Spud have been tagged by local authorities for thievery committed in support of their heroin addiction, and "Sing" plays throughout their capture and its aftermath. This is a turn of events with an unknowable outcome for the characters, but we can be sure that even the best-case scenario is bound to leave them in somewhat worse shape than they were before - the dreading unforeseeability of that serves to highlight the desperate nature of their lives, aswirl as they are in a perpetual cycle of drug abuse, withdrawal, and petty crime. There is no doubt that the track is meant to elevate the level of empathy that we, the viewers, feel for the duo in these moments.
Moments like this showcase why Trainspotting, the album, is able to hold its own against the cultural albatross that is Trainspotting, the film. The soundtrack is full of swing-for-the-fences moments: Iggy’s all-time classic “Lust for Life” kicks things off and lights a fire of swagger and snare-hits; “Temptation” allows for the halcyon combination of New Order’s wistful melancholia and falsetto crooning; “Perfect Day” offers the curlicue meandering of Lou Reed waxing sardonic in one of his best lyrical turns; and Underworld come into their own with the still-breathtaking “Born Slippy .NUXX”, which fittingly plays over the movie’s uplifting “Choose life…” closing-monologue-cum-mission-statement. In the crux of all that, one song is a relative shrug of disaffection - built not on flash but on atmosphere, itself a grinding portrayal of chronic weariness. "Sing" haunts the listener well after the album is over merely by its inclusion in this grouping, like a shadowy apparition caught out of the corner of the eye and impossible to un-see.
The sheer face-value meaning of this is not to be ignored. After all, before and after each tentpole moment in anyone’s life there is the living itself – shuffling from day to day, internal questions about what it’s worth, and the vague uneasiness that something might give out. Danny Boyle and his team made the “big moment” songs here mean more by including one that gives them all a sense of importance in the same way that the big moments of our lives have importance because of their relative scarcity. And beyond the apparent commentary of that on its surface, the symbolic undertones are similarly easy to divine: "choosing life" is about choosing the pain, the fear, the uncertainty, the deprivation, the doubt, the apathy, the boredom and everything else - it's not just about choosing the movie-worthy moments.