When Rome dropped in 2011, Danger Mouse (née Brian Burton) had already firmly established himself as one of the most important producers in music. That’ll happen when you launch the Black Keys to stardom, produce a spectacular Gorillaz album and a solid Beck record, co-create both Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells and mash up Jay-Z and the Beatles. But the seeds of this collaborative project with Italian composer Daniele Luppi sprouted much earlier in Burton’s career, with Rome ultimately getting its release after a five-year labor of love.
While concept albums can be hit and miss, you’d think that Danger Mouse tapping into his affection for Spaghetti Westerns would be a safe bet. Throw in Jack White and Norah Jones behind the mic on multiple songs (although not together), and Rome seems like it would fall into the category of can’t-miss. Burton would call it a “soundtrack without a movie,” and while it certainly got the critical attention it deserved at the time, Rome has become an effort that’s easy to overlook on the stacked résumé of Danger Mouse.

While Luppi would go on to collaborate with Burton on Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells as well as handling the string arrangements on the Danger Mouse and Sparklehouse album Dark Night of the Soul, the Rome project was actually their first work together. Burton has cited film classes as his initial inspiration to make music, as he was dazzled by the sprawling soundtracks to ‘60s and ‘70s era Italian films. He claims to have tinkered primarily with mock soundtracks in his nascent days in music. When he met Luppi in 2004—the same year as his The Grey Album breakthrough—serious work on his cinematic inspirations was a natural next step. The two began writing the music in 2005, and Burton claims he “thought it would come out in 2006.” That was not to be.

That Rome sat on the shelf for years isn’t an exception; by his own account, it took Burton and CeeLo Green almost four years to get Gnarls Barkley off the ground. Burton and Luppi crafted the album in pieces, and despite their many trips to Rome to record, Burton would claim he never even saw much of the city because they were always working. While a cinematic element is often at the core of projects helmed by Danger Mouse, Rome took that a step further. To get the authentic feel of the Spaghetti western era, Burton and Luppi would turn to analogue recording techniques, vintage equipment and some of the session musicians used by famed film score composer Ennio Morricone—despite some of those musicians having reached their eighties.

All the painstaking attention to detail paid off, as Rome exudes a cinematic atmosphere even if, at a mere 35-minute runtime, it doesn’t sprawl out into an epic scope. “Theme of Rome” sets the Spaghetti Western mood with pensively thumping percussion, sparse and deliberate guitar strumming and a soaring operatic vocal, the combination of which conjures mental images of riders silhouetted by sunset. The inclusion of Jack White and Norah Jones on the album, handling vocals on three songs apiece, adds dynamism to the project. White even chose to write the lyrics to his three songs.

White’s contributions ooze with outlaw imagery. On “The Rose with the Broken Neck,” White invokes loneliness, trains, farms, drinking, dogs and crows, all while backed bychimes and the choral swells from the Cantori Moderni choir who featured on the soundtrack for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In “Two Against One,” White sings the lament of a man who is fighting against himself, and he keeps with the album’s theme by adding both “trigger” and “gun” to the song’s chorus. A marching drum, driving organ and mournfully tinny, distant guitar drive album closer “The World,” White’s lyric of “Your greed is your own hangman’s noose” punctuating this soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist.

Meanwhile, Norah Jones adds slinky warmth to contrast White’s thorny coldness. Even when “Season’s Trees,” a song rife with longing from the perspective of a “Pretty picture caught in frame,” Jones adds a smooth momentum that overwhelms the lyrics’ desire for escape from stasis. “Black” may be the strongest song on the record, blending a smoky-smooth delivery from Jones with driving bass, choral atmospherics and vintage xylophone, all while laying down imagery of good versus evil and light succumbing to darkness. It would later be featured on an episode of “Breaking Bad.” Meanwhile, “Problem Queen” is a catchy, shimmying track packed with moody organ, propulsive bass and rumbling drums.

The instrumental tracks present Rome at its most cinematic. “Morning Fog” plinks and thuds its way along an old dusty trail, wordless contributions from the choir lifting the song into the ethereal. Luppi’s mastery of string arrangements is on full display in “Roman Blue,” counterbalanced by plucky bass. And the twangy guitar of “The Gambling Priest” is contrasted with light, dreamy xylophone plinks.

Now, five years on from Rome’s release, Danger Mouse continues to lurk behind the curtain on major releases. He’s produced for the Black Keys’ latest, Portugal. The Man and A$AP Rocky, and he even had a hand in Adele’s 25. Meanwhile, Broken Bells released their second full-length in 2014. His fingerprints are so far-reaching that Esquire even named him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, citing “his approach to music is more cinematographer than soundboard technician.” While Rome certainly isn’t the album that Danger Mouse is best known for, it’s perhaps the truest manifestation of the cinematic influences that first propelled him to create.

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