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Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross - Bird Box (Abridged) Original Score Music Album Reviews

The soundtrack institution of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return to their well of ominousness and employ an array of techniques to convey anxiety, impending danger, and discomfort.

Starting with 2008’s sprawling collection of instrumental work Ghosts I-IV (released under the Nine Inch Nails aegis) and accelerating with 2010’s Oscar-winning score for David Fincher’s The Social Network, the instrumental side of Trent Reznor has effectively shared equal billing with the more traditional industrial rock that made him a superstar. Never one for half measures, Reznor clearly sees the film-soundtrack work done alongside his longtime composing partner Atticus Ross as a chance to flex. “We aim for these to play like albums that take you on a journey and can exist as companion pieces to the films and as their own separate works,” Reznor wrote recently. He’s not kidding: The duo’s score for Fincher’s 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, is 15 minutes longer than the movie itself.

In announcing the release of Bird Box, the score for Netflix’s treacly Sandra Bullock survival-horror film of the same name, Reznor described it as a way of presenting the audience with “a significant amount of music and conceptual sound” that didn’t make the film’s final cut. Even then, that “Abridged” parenthetical in the title points toward “a more expansive” version of the album due later this year. It’s just as well since what Reznor and Ross have created is better than the movie they created it for. It does exactly what good soundtracks are capable of doing, and what they expressly intend for it to do: Emerge as a rewarding experience in its own right.

Songs like the subtly intimidating “Hand Covers Bruise” and the melancholy “Soft Trees Break the Fall” from Reznor and Ross’s breakthrough Social Network score still set the template for much of what’s going on here, using gentle keyboard-based melodies to establish an emotional baseline, while adding varying degrees of electronic noise to ratchet up the ominousness or relief depending on the needs of the moment. Album opener “Outside,” for example, charts a 12-minute course from quiet piano exercise to carrion-insect buzzing, with a gap inserted at the halfway point as if to say, “OK, time for the scary shit to start.” Later tracks “A Hidden Moment” and “Last Thing Left” find the pair in full grownup lullaby mode, twirling and twinkling their way through Reznor’s unmistakable melodic signatures.

But despite its familiar sonic hallmarks, Bird Box is not the work of one-trick ponies. You’d never mistake this album for, say, the Reznor/Ross soundtrack to Jonah Hill’s coming-of-age film mid90s from 2018, which provides a neat apples-to-apples comparison. The companion EP for that movie is all major-key optimism; it sounds a lot like looking at the partly-sunny sky on the album cover feels. Bird Box, by contrast, employs an array of techniques to convey anxiety, impending danger, and the sense that safety and happiness are never guaranteed—subject matter that suits a Nine Inch Nails lyric sheet just as well as a Netflix fright flick.

Odd time signatures on “Outside,” “Sleep Deprivation,” and “And It Keeps On Coming” leave the listener waiting for a resolution that never arrives. The crescendoing repetition of “Undercurrents,” the record’s most unnerving track, positively screams mounting horror even if you don’t know it accompanies the literal end of the world in the actual movie. And there’s a hook shared by “Careful What You Wish For” and “Close Encounters” best described as the sound of a broken record player skipping somewhere else in a deserted building you’ve entered but can’t get out of. Throughout the album, there’s a sense of maddeningly slow forward momentum, of heading someplace but never arriving. It works if you’ve seen the movie or not.

Despite nearly identical running times, you’re unlikely to give Bird Box a casual afternoon spin the way you might with The Social Network. (Unless you’re the kind of person who owns approximately 33 hours of Trent Reznor music with half a dozen playlists arranging the work by mood. Ahem.) It’s not as easy a listen, and the songcraft is far less direct. Still, nearly a decade deep into a sideline in the soundtrack business that’s become a second full-time gig—and nearly three decades into Nine Inch Nails as a going concern—Reznor and Ross are finding new ways to draw their listeners in, then make them uncomfortable once they get there.

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