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Johnny Jewel - Themes for Television Music Album Reviews

Johnny Jewel - Themes for Television Music Album Reviews
The surprise release collects unheard material originally meant for “Twin Peaks: The Return”; though slighter than this year’s Digital Rain, it might be Jewel’s strongest soundtrack work yet.

The air of mystique surrounding Johnny Jewel often means that, when it comes to his musical output, nothing is quite what it may seem. That’s certainly true of Themes for Television, a surprise release that dropped at the beginning of this week. The 56 minutes of music collected here were allegedly meant for David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.” Jewel reportedly composed 20 hours of music for the show and submitted somewhere between five and seven hours to Lynch for potential use.

But despite being billed as a collection of unreleased music taken from those sessions—Lynch ultimately decided not to use Jewel’s work, save for the title track to last year’s Windswept—some of Themes for Television has appeared elsewhere in other forms. Besides a “minimal” edit of “Windswept,” there are also alternate versions of “Shadow” and “Saturday,” two songs that Jewel’s Chromatics performed in “Twin Peaks”’ iconic Roadhouse venue; the twinkling theme of “Shadow” is sorta-reprised on “Waking Up,” which itself bears close resemblance to Windswept’s “Heaven.” Similar to the streaks of nostalgia that occasionally emerged in “Twin Peaks: The Return,” the general makeup of Themes for Television elicits pangs of familiarity noticeable only to those who paid close enough attention in the past.

Despite these shared traits, it’s perhaps best (and, considering the inimitable Angelo Badalamenti’s contributions to the series, fairest) to experience Themes for Television through a sonic lens divorced from Lynch and Frost’s beautiful and terrifying creation. Think of this release as another window into Jewel’s approach to score composition—a vista that, granted, listeners are more than familiar with at this point. Over the past four years, Jewel’s soundtracked Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, as well as the 2016 Belgian drama Home and the previous year’s A Beautiful Now. (This isn’t counting his appearances on the iconic Drive soundtrack, or “imagined soundtrack” releases like Windswept, the 2016 EP The Key, and “The Other Side of Midnight” from 2015—documents not explicitly attached to other properties, but all bearing the “Film” logo on their cover art.)

Although it stands as comparably slight when measured up to Jewel’s lovely, ambient Digital Rain LP from earlier this year, Themes for Television might be the strongest collection of Jewel’s score work to date. Fans of his work know what they’ve come for—rippling synths, dark ambience, the occasional melodic swell, and a mournful saxophone line or two—and Jewel certainly does not disappoint.

The “(Opening Titles)” edit of “Shadow” emphasizes the original’s triumphant elegance, Chromatics’ performance of which served as a dazzling stinger to the second episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return”; the scorched static of “Caffeine” gives way to John Carpenter-esque tick-tock tones, while the synthetic bath of “Self Portrait” possesses a weightlessness that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2010 breakout Returnal. The relative brevity of these tracks (most of which not pushing past the three-minute mark) means that their staying power depends almost wholly on the listeners’ predilection for atmosphere. But while they’re in the air, it makes for a nice sonic space to live within.

Themes for Television’s highlights effectively double as a showcase for Jewel’s impressive sense of arrangement and mood-setting. “Windswept (Minimal)” is anchored around placid keys and close-mic’d woodwinds, every figurative breath echoing throughout the track’s mix to create a truly chilling feeling, while “Embers” breaks into a skyward major-key ascent before settling beautifully on a minor chord, like a feather hitting hard ground. The latter is a simple and subtly devastating trick that, in others’ hands, would risk approaching cliché; in Jewel’s hands, the approach retains power in the purity of its straightforwardness.

It’s possible that Themes for Television’s strengths originate from Jewel’s own intimate personal connection to the “Twin Peaks” franchise. Last year he told Consequence of Sound that he stopped following the original series during its early-1990s run after a friend he watched it with committed suicide; he didn’t return to it until moving to Montreal and meeting a band member from Italians Do It Better outfit Desire years later. So besides being a fine placeholder release as Jewel’s fans wait for that record, perhaps Themes for Television is best viewed as an invitation into the mind and heart of an artist who, like “Twin Peaks”’ enigmatic co-creator himself, is content to remain just far enough out of reach.

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