Album Review: Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack

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The soundtrack is a lost art.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when these albums were making a big impact on the music scene. There was a time when bands would score an entire film, like AC/DC did for Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (okay, it was the first one that came to mind). Remember when cuts from a soundtrack would rocket to the top of the charts, like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titantic or The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” off The City of Angels soundtrack? Or how about a soundtrack that would open your eyes to new genres of music like O, Brother Where Art Thou? did with bluegrass, or to a forgotten song (like Dick Dale’s “Misrilou” in Pulp Fiction) or was just a solid album (The Garden State soundtrack).

Photo Credit: CBS Films
Photo Credit: CBS Films

Now, soundtracks, for the most part, are just disposable collections of songs thrown together that really add nothing to the music world or the movie it’s associated with.

Then, there’s the soundtrack to The Coen Brothers’ latest opus, Inside Llewyn Davis. The record, much like the soundtrack to the brother’s O, Brother Where Art Thou?, is as much a reflection on the mood and tone of the film as it is an exploration and for some, an introduction, into the world of a musical genre. (In this case, folk music.)

The heart and soul of the album is the film’s lead actor Oscar Isaac who did all his own vocal work in the film. The actor, who was known for films like Sucker Punch and Drive prior to working with The Coens, has a beautiful voice. He just sounds like a polished, veteran musician who’s been performing his entire life, not an actor who’s been thrust into a role. Isaac oozes heartbreak with every vocal chord vibration, giving every folk ballad he performs a touch of the gritty Southern blues.

Pick any songs Isaac sings on, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” “Green Green Rocky Road” or “Shoals of Herring” and you will be swept up in the emotion he packs in each song. Gun to the head, if there was one song amongst these that shines the most, it’s the Celtic-tinged “Shoals of Herring.” It’s use in the film itself was so emotional and near heartbreaking that when you hear it on the album you can’t help but find a little mist welling up in the corner of your eye.

The soundtrack is littered with ridiculous talent outside of Isaac. Mumford & Sons’ mastermind Marcus Mumford has his hands on a number of tracks and his duo with Isaac on “Fare Thee Well” would have been the best overall track on the album had it not been for an all-star collaboration that comes later in the record. “Fare Thee Well” is reminiscent of many a Mumford & Sons song, but yet it still comes across as something that could’ve been captured live in a smoke-filled room in 1960s New York.

And yes, for those wondering, Justin Timberlake does appear on the soundtrack — three times to be exact. First, as a part of a trio with Carrie Mulligan and Stark Sands on the cut, “500 Miles.” Then, of course, there’s his absolutely ridiculous but catchy as all hell, “Please Mr. Kennedy” which also features Isaac and Girls’ co-star Adam Sackler.

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The best track on the record, without a doubt, is the all-star jam on the classic Dubliners’ ballad, “The Auld Triangle.” The track features Timberlake, Mumford, Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers) and Gabe Witcher (The Punch Brothers). The confluence of vocals on this song is chillingly awesome. It’s rousing, it’s emotional, it has tremendous staying power — and all for a song done in complete a cappella. This is a raise the pint at the bar anthem that pulls at every heart string you’ve ever had. Just pure, powerful stuff.

The mark of a great soundtrack is when you can recommend it to people who have not seen or have no interest in seeing the movie it’s based off. So with that, the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis is a brilliant, eye-opening record that blows the dust off the record covers of the 60s folk scene and shines a new, modern light on it. It’s time to discover what made this scene so vibrant and so much a part of the tapestry of modern music and if you need a perfect primer, this soundtrack is the place to begin.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites