Lopatin, in his second score for the filmmaking brothers, is keyed in to the external and internal stresses at work on Adam Sandler’s gambling jeweler.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film, Uncut Gems, is propelled by the MacGuffin of a highly valuable opal dug out of an African diamond mine. The impetus for the protagonist’s flailing attempts to pay off, and then further deepen, his various gambling debts, the gem has a kind of talismanic, hypnotizing property for those who gaze into it, seeing in its reflective prism futures of financial freedom or, in the case of basketball star Kevin Garnett, a mystical good-luck charm that promises another championship ring.
Daniel Lopatin, in his second score for the filmmaking brothers, is keyed in to the external and internal stresses at work on Adam Sandler’s gambling jeweler Howard, but if his score can be said to have any one perspective, it could be that of the opal itself. Crafted on Moog synthesizers and inspired by the New Age stylings of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, Lopatin’s score nonetheless eschews the amoebic pulses of sound that define such artists, opting instead to recast the gleaming, trebly tone clusters in angular collisions, giving sharp edges to a stereotypically soft music. In effect, the score is like a gemstone: kaleidoscopic and beautiful but capable of cutting glass.
For all of the film’s constant escalation of tension and the unending fatalism that defines Howard’s haplessness, the protagonist himself remains indefatigably optimistic, and the music tends to situate itself in his headspace. “Pure Elation” sounds like an extended mix of operating system boot-up music, extrapolating Brian Eno’s Windows 95 chime into digital wake-up music so elegant one expects cartoon birds to appear to help you get dressed. “The Bet Hits” is pure bliss, all soaring tone clusters interspersed with percolating bubbles of synth that revel in the almost post-coital sensation of a bet paying off. Even “Fuck You Howard,” the title of which hints at a moment of pure conflict, is wrapped up in its narcissistic blanket, retreating into choir chants and sudden explosions of squealing noise that shove away any thought of self-reflection.
At times, Lopatin spirals off into wildly unpredictable directions, albeit ones with tethers to the score’s inspirations. “Back to Roslyn,” for example, lurches out of ominous bass tones into the sudden bleary wail of a saxophone that sounds completely divorced from everything else on the soundtrack to this moment. Yet in its noirish groans the sax recalls the more plaintive, traditional moments of noir that crept into Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, a reminder that the futuristic sounds of the electronics have their roots in older genres. “Windows” foregrounds brittle, almost tribal percussion over canned voices cycling through various wordless chants, as if Philip Glass suddenly sat in the studio and fiddled around for a day.
Yet it is when the score dips into tension, as it does on “School Play,” that one truly experiences whiplash. Abruptly, all the rising, abstract slurs of sound that have defined the album drop out into a dubspace where the twinkling of earlier synths recede into the distance alongside any possibility of help. In their stead comes a rapidly cycling synth pattern underneath bass glissandi that lurch the album into driving, tense music. Metallic howls and intersecting synth lines capture the sensation of walls closing in, though Lopatin impressively manages to generate this sudden plunge into darkness and horror using all of the components that to this point have been relaxing music.
These conflicting moods converge in the closing suite of tracks, starting with the dark ambient of “Buzz Me Out,” which acts as a preamble to the frenzy of “The Blade” and “Mohegan Suite.” Here, Lopatin splits the perspectives, mingling the earlier bliss with emergent terror, overlapping the two until one gets lost in the irreconcilable feelings. This is particularly prevalent on “Mohegan Suite,” which becomes delirious with giddiness and tension. Its opening synth pattern, as gentle as it is unnerving, forms a fitting base for a track that remains fundamentally minimal but slowly adds perpendicular synth lines to complicate and upend its simple propulsion.
Lopatin’s previous score for the Safdies, for Good Time, marked a relative departure for the artist, delving into more directly rhythmic sounds than tend to appear on his more cerebral work outside of film. Uncut Gems, though made later, sounds like a bridge between those two approaches. It regularly lapses into the driven, antic sound of Lopatin’s last score while largely being situated in a more abstract, heavily referential style indicative of his other records, particularly Returnal and early albums like Zones Without People. The closing title track, which could pass for video game credit music, reflects this contradictory impulse toward retreating into brighter textures for a film already reputed as among the most suspenseful of the modern era. With its bleary-eyed, sunny turn toward the cosmos, the closing track is a tranquil reset, albeit one filled with enough tongue-in-cheek bits of irony to acknowledge the puckish impulse beneath its façade of elation.