Warren Ellis’s score for Australian film Bad Girl — released recently on Milan Records — is a dynamic experience, incorporating atmospheric synths, massively distorted passages, field recordings, heavily manipulated sounds, and complex emotions into a rewarding body of work. His creation shines a light on ourselves as much as it serves the film’s story.
It’s Ellis’s first full electronic score, following his solo work on the likes of the Mustang score, and his collaborations with Nick Cave to score films such as Hell or High Water, The Road, The Proposition, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. For those works, Ellis has typically employed the use of instruments like piano, violin, bouzouki, guitar, flute, mandolin, tenor guitar, and viola.
The longtime Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member’s voyage into the electronic realm shows he’s as good with the machines as he is with acoustic instruments. Ellis brings with him a musicianship that has served him well throughout his life — before he was busking around Europe in the 1980s and before he joined Cave in 1994, Ellis studied classical violin throughout school in his native Australia.
While I haven’t been able to see Bad Girls yet, what I hear on this album is a captivating work of art that survives well as a standalone story. Basically, Ellis’s first foray into embracing the electronic modality is a resounding success.
What Ellis achieves with this collection is an ability to seamlessly move between sacred, Cliff Martinez-style ambient moments and more beat-driven, distorted fare evocative of the likes of Junkie XL (or, to some extent, the Bad Seeds), while honoring a discernible continuity of narrative so everything is related and works together. And we feel each musical intention as we listen to the score — or at least I did.
For example, take the cue, “Motel Room.” It’s a nuanced cut with shimmering synths and symphonic overtones that revel in their ethereal nature. However, simmering beneath it all are dissonant radio waves and what sounds like the loud buzz of a guitar amp. It’s an intimate, meditative number that’s barely suppressing something much more abrasive.
“Suicidal” is one of those harsher numbers, which seems appropriate, given the title. It’s an onslaught of distorted drums and everything else, all reversed, creating the feeling of your soul being pumped out of you. It’s melodic and intense, and also abrasive. No matter, though, because it seamlessly works its way into “Motel Room.” Precision at its finest.
“Chloe” has a type of backbeat and washed-out synth pads and related nuances that would be at home on an Enigma record. However, they’re run through some fuzzy distortion, giving the listener the impression that to be lulled is a luxury not available. It’s like being stuck on a desert island with a copy of Pure Moods and some failing speakers. It’s one of the standout cues on the release.
“Amy” is one of the album’s most precious moments — and I mean that with sincerity and respect. It’s a subtle number that works its way through its emotions via a vibrato’d chord progression and a measured amount of noise, all of which a warm bass guitar supports. It’s a reassuring, affirming number — if not suggesting a sense of hope, at least a sense of calm. This is the type of song I’d love to wake up to — it’s a beautiful, meditative number.
The closing duo, “Bad Girl” and “Bad Bad Girl,” has shades of everything Ellis uses in the film score. There are driving back beats, dissonant and heavily distorted synths and guitars and catchy bass leads, all coming off as if run through an astringent of lo-fi filters.
As I mentioned, I haven’t seen the film, but to me these cuts succeed at relaying the effect life’s various experiences can have on someone — we all feel a bit on overdrive and maxed out, left with our fidelity compromised by life’s dirty filters. We just don’t always get to experience music that relays this feeling so well.