Rating:David Lynch already released two solo albums, so it was about time John Carpenter stepped his game up. Halloween would simply not be the same without the foreboding of its plinking theme, and even with his less memorable music, Carpenter’s compositions are as much a trademark of his films as jazz is to Woody Allen’s. Lost Themes serves as Carpenter’s solo debut, but unlike the aforementioned Lynch there’s no real experimentation here. These songs hew closely to what we’ve heard from Carpenter on the silver screen and, as the title suggests, they are meant as a score to films that were never conjured up from the ether.
Indeed, Lost Themes does sound like a soundtrack. That cinematic quality both helps and hinders. To the more imaginative listener, especially one who appreciates retro synth instrumentals, the album will no doubt evoke vivid mental imagery. To others, the lack of the visual element that usually accompanies this type of music may largely sink their enjoyment of this project. While Carpenter doesn’t offer up any surprises (save for a guest vocalist and a handful of remixes stuffed at the album’s tail end), he delivers a solid instrumental record of brooding electronica that makes one wish his directorial output hasn’t flagged so significantly in the new millennium. While one may wonder why Carpenter hasn’t gone the album route before, it helps to remember that the resurgence of analog-based ‘80s synth music of late has helped make conditions ripe for this kind of work.
Carpenter wisely starts strong with “Vortex,” the album’s opener and first single. Soft, pensive piano gives way to a churning beat and dramatic quavering guitar. High-pitched synth notes appear like a white-masked slasher from the shadows, and the song earns its title with a swirl of instrumentation working to pull you into the darkness. From there, Lost Themes can be hit and miss as far as memorable tracks go, but as a cohesive whole it’s atmospheric electronic music at its most stylized. The outright highlight of the album is the final proper track, “Night.” Here Carpenter keeps the gloom at a thrumming simmer, approaching a motorik beat for a highway that crosses the River Styx. Above it all looms a few simple repeated notes dripping in dread, and it’s the kind of track that punctuates an album that—with track names like “Fallen,” “Obsidian,” “Abyss,” “Wraith” and “Purgatory” —clearly aims to embody despair.
A more robust version of that gloom can be felt on the remix of “Night” that immediately follows. Zola Jesus is perfectly cast as the rare and haunting voice on Lost Themes, much as Lykke Li perfectly embodied the blend of light and dark in her work on Lynch’s “I’m Waiting Here.” As for the other remixes, they feel superfluous but are a welcome enough change of pace. The JG Thirwell remix of “Abyss” in particular livens up what is otherwise a somewhat ploddingly cinematic effort. But the inclusion of two remixed “Fallen” versions is unnecessary, especially given that the original isn’t anything to write home about. And where Carpenter may err most egregiously is on “Domain,” which opens almost like a stripped-down Danny Elfman score, only to switch gears into an overtly cheesy ‘80s theme that eventually picks up pace and comes off sounding dangerously close to the goofy circus music of Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
Carpenter’s Lost Themes is a welcome addition to his creative output, even if he doesn’t exactly venture outside his comfort zone. The album sounds like you would expect it to. There’s darkness, a few perhaps unintentionally silly moments and a hugely effective nostalgia element at play. And even more so than Lynch’s albums, Carpenter’s debut solo effort really makes one yearn for the flicks from his classic era, while clinging to the notion that, rather than enduring yet another remake of his work, hope for another definitive Carpenter film is not lost.