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Soundtrack review: House of cards (season 5) (Jeff Beal – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: House of cards (season 5) (Jeff Beal – 2017)

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Every year there are about 1500 film, TV or game scores released; regardless of the movies that will come out and of the host of amazing composers our there, at the start of each year there are just two soundtracks that I wait for with unbridled anticipation, both of them TV: “House of Cards” and “Game of thrones”. These are my musical certitudes and I know that they will bring me fascinating hours listening. I never write about them before seeing the shows in their entirety as they are so well woven in the fabric of those stories that the experiences in enhanced tenfold. And for the past few years the two of them raced each other to be my favourite TV score of the respective year; in 2015 “House of cards (season 3)” had no rival while last year “Game of thrones” barely edged season 4.

Still, Jeff Beal’s yearly magnum opus is the one composition that never takes a dip in quality as years go by and I am amazed at how constantly this composer can write music that’s so fascinating, so compelling, so addictive; to me Jeff Beal should be on the poster each year alongside Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. His music is as important and as good as the script (sometimes even better) and imagine me almost rushing through binging season 5 of “House of cards” just so I could hear the music. My fascination with this score starts with the main titles as I never skip the opening credits of each episode just to be able to hear that unbelievable main theme play over the Washington DC images; the horns, the cunning and confident motifs that represent politics so well have made the “House of cards” opening sequence one of my favourites ever; and then it says on the screen “Music by Jeff Beal” and, like I said, it’s the name as important as the ones of the actors playing the two main characters.

What I noticed as episodes went by is that this time the music was louder and more varied than in past seasons; new instruments surfaced and more light came to cast some of the shadows away. Variation came from a wider range of emotions as every time couples like Claire and Tom or even LeAnn and Doug had their intimate moments the music created a bubble around them to separate their personal story from the plot of the show; the music got unexpectedly romantic and purposely different, almost as a flashback to 40s movies at times, as if to protect their feelings from being tainted by the life around them; the sound of those scenes was like a sanctuary and once the imaginary or physical doors closed behind them, nothing else mattered; I know how that feels in real life and for the first time in the course of the show Jeff Beal wrote about pure love and I mean love for another person now power or money or secrets. The theme for “Tom Yates” is the main one that recurs in the honest romantic moments of the show and it’s simply beautiful, jazzy and dreamy. The bass is there to tone down the frantic beating of hearts.

This new, louder, bolder approach is obvious from the very first cue “Nothing to be afraid of”; the percussion joins the horn section, trembling strings and piano as if to match the way the Underwoods basically come out of the shadows in this season and act in plain sight; a lot of their manoeuvres now happen under the public eye and this cue lets us now that it’s loud and visible now. Of course the trademark sound of the “House of cards” musical universe, that haunting shrill of a female voice is present here as well to remind us that the Underwoods never change.

The instrument that dominates the season 5 music is the piano; I noticed it while watching the show and I remember how my jaw slightly dropped when I heard “How we met” for the first time in context; I instantly thought that this was the kind of piano theme I would love to hear live and I hope Jeff Beal brings his fantastic concert series to Europe as well; I will not miss it. The piano can play deep and emphatic like in this cue; it can play cold and almost emotionless like in “Dial up the terror”, a theme that could very well feature on the original Twin Peaks score because it’s so dark and haunting and a cue where the contrast with the echo of that female voice in the background is so intense that it’s almost unbearable; it can play like rain in “Where are you”; it can play suspenseful like in “Then what”; the piano under the fingers of Jeff Beal can play any emotion it needs to. My favourite pieces from “House of cards (season 5)” where the piano themes. One in particular recurs throughout the score, the “Real power” theme.

Jeff Beal trades some of the elegance that always defined his “House of cards” music for rawer action cues; I’ve always said that his music for the show is a perfect metaphor of the way politics works but in season 5 his focus was on the people that hide behind the false smiles and pristine images and on their actions and machinations; he moved the reflector from the scene to behind the curtain. The music in season 5 turns from reflective to active and the suspense is now even more palpable; cues are much shorter than I’m used to from previous seasons and the atmosphere is different. There’s almost no time to settle in comfortably as it was before as I need to follow the action, the thread of the story.

The rebellion of the instruments and the departure from the usual “House of cards” sound is also obvious in the score’s only long cue, the 6 minutes “Elysium fields”; once again the percussion and the bass bring something new while the string section is louder and almost distorted. Gone are the velvety shadows and the only thing linking a cue like this to previous seasons is the dark, dripping piano.

As every season there is one particular moment in the show that brings my favourite musical piece; last year it was when Claire’s mother died while this season it involved again Mrs. Underwood and somebody dying near her. That’s the moment that made the biggest impression on me musically and that’s when the piano touched me the deepest; I wish “Swallowing poison” was longer than it is on the album because in the context of the show it sounded a bit different.

With the music of season 5 of “House of cards” Jeff Beal extended the musical universe he created for this show; if until now the music was contained and had depth this time it went wide and brought an entirely different sound than I was used to: shorter cues, more action oriented, livelier and less mysterious. If in past albums the cues flowed like a dark river this time the score feels more fragmented, more neurotic even as the characters’ lives unravel and they start to lose control. I can understand the composer’s choice given the story he had to work with. Expect something entirely different from this album but just as appealing. The musical fresque of “House of cards” keeps expanding and evolving and when the show will be over, it will stand as one of the best TV collections of all times.

Cue rating: 92 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 60 / 104

Album excellence: 58%

Highlights:
Nothing To Be Afraid Of
How We Met
House Of Cards Theme
Dial Up The Terror
Infamy
About My Father
Tom Yates
Tom, Stop
Where Are You
Are We Together
He Lived
Artfully Confident
Then What
New Election Day
The Bunker
Dead To Rights
Elysium Fields
A Million Years Ago
Saved My Life
Don’t Go Their Way
Note From Tom
Before I Take It Back
Implicate Yourself
Night Vigil
Shut It Down
Real Power
Women In Combat
Heavy Heart
Swallowing Poison
Nuclear Codes

 

 

 

 

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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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