When a film score composer finds a way to reflect or develop a film’s story in a clever way, it’s such heaven. Podcasts are just the same.
The podcast majesties at This American Life (who brought us Serial) just last week released a new true crime series named S-Town (“Shittown”). The township of the title is Woodstock, Alabama, but its nickname is coined by the series’ chief subject, local resident John B McLemore.
Leaving aside the story (which is amazing and that’s all I’m going to say about that), S-Town’s score is totally striking within the first two minutes of the series’ first episode. Composer Daniel Hart uses rhythm and instrumentation to summon two key elements in the story: time (the passage of, the keeping of), and the American South.
Podcast host Brian Reed begins with a monologue about the study of ancient horology – repairing old clocks and timepieces: “When an antique clock breaks – a clock that’s been telling time for 200, or 300 years – fixing it can be a real puzzle,” he says. “An old clock like that was hand-made by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system… there can be hundreds of tiny individual pieces, all of which need to interact precisely.” Here the first strains of violin emerge from the background air in a perfect fourth interval, and a double bass plods out little notes: one, two, three, four.
As Reed finishes his dialogue, the violins start to patter quickly on one note, and the clicking beat and half-time claps of the series’ main theme, Bibb County, begin. Violins swerve eerily upward with the bluegrass harmonics you’ll recognise from country-influenced artists or scores (Carter Burwell’s Fargo or No Country For Old Men), and you feel the sense of mystery and weird suspense – although it’s always languid, never frantic – that comes to characterise the entire S-Town story.
The strings suggest isolation, rurality, resignation, that particular Americana that’s about bleak routine or even ennui; the beat starts as lively muted slaps, the way a bluegrass band will keep time by thumping knees or chests, followed by a hip hop drum line which uses square accents just like a clock’s ticking, measuring out four beats to each second of time. The lazy claps on the off-beat suggest a not entirely enthusiastic participation from us homo sapiens on this greater journey. Despite the signs of reluctance or indolence, it’s still completely dramatic, even electric, and totally beautiful.
In addition to Hart, several musicians contributed their talents to S-Town’s score (composer Nick Thorburn, producer Helado Negro, drummer Matt McGinley, composer Trey Pollard, and The Zombies, whose 1968 track A Rose For Emily caps off each episode); but Hart also composed an entire album of music for S-Town which you should definitely check out, in addition to the podcast itself, because don’t think everybody is going to be as cautious as me about spoilers – get in there.