TV

Soundtrack review: House of cards (season 4) (Jeff Beal – 2016)

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The music from season 4 of “House of cards” is just another volume in what has already become for me one of the most beautiful, fascinating and addictive TV soundscapes ever.

“House of cards” is one of the few shows where I don’t want to listen to the music and write about it before watching all the episodes. Jeff Beal’s music is like the skin that covers the flesh and bone of this masterful TV show and the experience of listening to the score is enhanced by also having the images and scenes in mind. As exceptional as the music is it makes more sense for the fans of the show. With every year the “House of cards” music has gotten smarter, more complex, more exciting and even if from the scripts point of view I still say season 1 is the best, the music has kept growing. Last year’s season 3 album got a perfect 100% grade for me and was my TV score of the year. I couldn’t wait for this fourth volume and I am happy that it’s even longer than the previous one: 140 minutes.

What I noticed during the show was that this time the music was more subtle than before. In past seasons it would jump at me quite often and make me aware that it was there all the time. This time the composer chose to make the music as intimate and hidden as the most private thoughts of the characters we’ve grown to love to hate or hate to love. There were times when the music was barely audible but intense and poignant like a whisper or a sigh that tells more than a hundred words. For the fourth season Jeff Beal turned his musical spotlight to the characters and their feelings rather than the story and the big picture.

Take a cue like “Terminal” for example. A jazzy, moody and soulful inner monologue that brings Claire’s image to my mind right away; the pain in this theme is contained and assumed, as if the character knew it was coming and was expecting it. It amazes me how Jeff Beal says so much so quietly. This lonely piece of music is all I need to hear to know what an extraordinary composition I’m in for. I know the feeling, I understand it and the universal language of film music has made me able to be inside the soul of the characters as if I had lived those situations myself.

To me Claire has become the most interesting character in “House of cards” and I think Jeff Beal feels the same. Season 4 was all about her rise and tribulations and every time a cue focuses on her, her home or her feelings for her mother and husband the tone is different and I can feel, in a strange way, that the composer loves this character in his own special way and treats her feelings with extra care and depth. “Texas” is another moment that just makes my heart tremble. I listen to the music and I wonder how can someone write the piano like that, combine it with the soft background percussion and with the distant trumpet and make something that sounds almost like jazz but much more emotional. Jeff Beal is a wizard and his music takes all sorts of dark shapes and starts moving around me, touching me, teasing me and I feel like Frank Underwood faced with his pre transplant hallucinations.

As subtle as the music was throughout most of season four, one scene stood out and will be remembered for years to come from the musical point of view… I will not spoil anything but it’s a scene that involves Claire, her mother and Tom. I was watching the emotional moments, I was listening to the stunning requiem that Jeff Beal wrote and I was relieving the moments last year when my dear grandmother passed away. The music was translating, respectfully and intimately just what someone feels in moments like those. I was listening to that violin becoming louder and louder as the pain drowns everything else and I felt as if that scene was going to freeze and everyone was going to be stuck eternally in that limbo. These three and a half minutes together with the scene they were written for will remain engraved in the history of TV music. “Help you win” is my favorite cue from this score and I loved it when, on social media none other than David Arnold felt the need to instantly congratulate Jeff Beal for how he scored that scene. Many more composers joined the conversation, equally impressed and I imagine that for Jeff this recognition from his peers meant a lot. I tip my hat to him for how he understood the scene and the feelings. The motif gets a reprise in “Arrangements” way later in the score.

The way the music affects me could make this review binge material itself, that’s how much I want to write. Every cue gets under my skin and makes me react. The themes for different characters are so appropriate that they play like a catalogue of photos to browse through. You can make an exercise, after each episode, if your haven’t finished the show yet: you could pause the show and listen to themes like “Doris Jones”, “Celia”, “Remy Danton” or “Jackie Sharp” depending on which character has the spotlight and internal or external features of those characters. Jeff Beal proves to be a brilliant musical psychologist.

The piano strokes in “Hope he dies” are chills driving up my spine. “Obedience” takes it one step further and gets very uncomfortable. I remember that scene as well and I could consider this another character theme written for the determined and deranged Doug, or should I say for his dark side. There’s still something human left in this very complex character (and one of my favorites from the show) and Jeff Beal sheds some light on it in “Memorial fund”, another highlight from this album. I’ll say it again; the music of season 4 is all about the characters and what drives them, moves them or affects them.

Just like the show is filmed in almost washed out tones where the colors are drowned the music has that thin layer or darkness and blur above it. It’s fascinating how even with such different themes the score always reflects the duality of most of the characters and the way their passion and desires burn inside where they are contained while the outside always looks elegant and impenetrable. The music has many layers and I love to explore each one of them. Every now and then we hear that military trumpet sound that somehow makes me think of Washington DC.

I keep waiting for that special ghost from the past scores to appear that haunting female vocal shrill motif that was woven in the fabric of many past cues. It seems to be missing from season 4 but that absence is compensated by playful cues that add yet another dimension to the “House of cards” musical lore. Pieces like “Running mates” or “Strawn man” actually make me smile for a little while. “Perfectly timed exit” is another piece I remember from watching the show because of a rolling piano motif that made me think of a string of pearls resting on Claire Underwood’s elegant neck.

The only discrepancy I feel between the music and the TV show is related Governor Conway’s. As a character he is very different, at least on the outside, from the rest and I didn’t hear that in the score, I didn’t feel that anomaly. Maybe it’s just an impression, but I didn’t hear a theme that made me think of his fresh approach, narcissism and lust for the spotlight. He will definitely be present in the next season so maybe I’ll recognize him in next year’s score. Or maybe it’s the motif I hear in “Common enemy” and “You should go”.

The music from season 4 of “House of cards” is just another volume in what has already become for me one of the most beautiful, fascinating and addictive TV soundscapes ever. Exceptional work once again from Jeff Beal.

Cue rating: 99 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 134 / 142

Album excellence: 94%

Highlights:

Any Less Hurtful

House of Cards Main Title

Had My Doubts

Terminal

Make the Terror

Texas

Opposing Forces

Celia

Become Dangerous

Help You Win

Doris Jones

It Radiates

What I’m Afraid Of

Keep an Eye

Cabin in the Woods

Betrayed

Coat Tails

Cronkite Moments

Hope He Dies

The Plan Is Sound

Digging Up Notes

Obedience

Remy Danton

Madness

I Dream of Zoe

New Organ

Back You Up

On the Ticket

Search Engine Plot

Blind Eye

NRA Meeting

Running Mates

Janine Remembers

Strawn Man

Memorial Fund

Thank You Texas

Aiko on the Move

Good for the Pain

Arrangements

Perfectly Timed Exit

Hallucinations

Partners for Life

This Is the President

Tusk Lied

Jackie Sharp

A Thousand Miles

In the Dark

Conway Intervenes

Mr. Hamadi

Let Him Go

A United Front

Rebirth

 

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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