‘Too Old to Die Young’ Could Just Be Cliff Martinez’s Finest Score

Cliff Martinez’s score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Amazon series Too Old to Die Young is by far among his best — showcasing a richly nuanced and evocative body of work that highlights Martinez’s predilection toward always challenging himself and reinvigorating his compositions with a limitless curiosity and energy.

TOTDY, which spans 10 episodes over 13 hours and is available to stream right now, is about a detective named Martin Jones (Miles Teller), who leads a double life as a hitman. After a life-changing night, a cascade of events follows as Teller takes us through the rich tapestry of LA’s criminal underground on an exceedingly bizarre and violent journey.

A story like that, at the helm of eminently enjoyable provocateur Refn, requires a score from a composer who can fully appreciate and articulate both its softest, most beautiful moments and its most gorgeously brutal. And a project of this scope and audacity requires that score to be something new and fresh to propel the story. Naturally, Martinez, a long-time Refn collaborator, has delivered on the TOTDY soundtrack, which Milan Records released today in the digital sphere and will issue on vinyl in July. There’s no doubt he would, though.

“In the early days, there were a lot of guys that were really kind of cerebral composers,” he said in an interview with Vehlinggo. “They didn’t try to take these weird new instruments and make conventional music with it. They took weird new instruments and made even weirder music with it.”

That philosophy did end up translating to musical passages on TOTDY, even as Martinez has retained the indelible hallmarks of his sound, such as atmospheric and crystalline synth pads, ambient electronic tones, and the celestial Cristal Baschet. 

“I Hereby Give You Yaritza” opens with a hypnotic classic piano and celestial chime intro accompanied by gloriously tempered horns and a Vangelis-esque, CS80-sounding synth part, all bathed in a mysterious beauty. Halfway through, a wicked theremin solo is unleashed, coloring the cue with Mid-Century Modern sci-fi. Under that there are classic Martinez-style ambient synths and fuzzy electro pulsations akin to his work on The Neon Demon. It all unfurls with careful but grandiose intent.

On “Jesus and the Snake,” a serpentine theremin — seemingly run through a guitar amp — shifts its way across the top line as moody synths tremble beneath, a minor-key synth run rolls along to provide a sense of motility.

The theremin shows up on several more cues, including “I’m Hunting,” a standout track stacked to the gills with a dynamic array of Martinez-esque synth expressions: the atmospherics and careful nuance, the crystalline ambiance, a pulsating maximalism used with great economy in a sea of deft minimalism.  

Martinez has also opened his palette to more acoustic/organic instrumentation, an option available to him because of a move to a larger home in Topanga Canyon, California, he has said. While not the first time he’s paired electronic and acoustic fare, it’s quite pronounced on TOTDY.  

“I’m embracing the wild and crazy concept of mics and human beings playing real instruments, and combining that with the electronic stuff,” he said in that Vehlinggo interview.

That’s evident on the cue “Viggo and Diana,” which is built on a profoundly invigorating crescendo. A rich wash of beautiful synth tones are joined by a gorgeous, wordless woman’s vocal melody and string accompaniment, all building from a few grains of sand to a majestic mountain of sound.

The track that features the main theme, “Naked Guy Murder,” sports a recurring string phrase: a chunky, processed staccato string section that chugs along with increasing foreboding. As I wrote last month when it was released : “The track begins with a shifting drone that’s accompanied by disturbed symphonics and a haunting splash of synths. That gives way to staccato strings and a cascading synth expression that is classic Martinez. Stirring ambient sounds and analog synths fill in the blanks. It’s at once a heavily populated piece and a roomy, minimal one. And it’s fantastic.”

“Kill Me Fast and Clean” has a malicious and rather dissonant brush of strings that give way to splashy cymbal bursts, all as a monosynth takes lead like a rider unable to control her horse. The guttural string theme discussed above features prominently. It’s a fantastic cut.

As I mentioned earlier, even with the experimentation — and the marked weirdness and oddities that abound — it’s still obvious that TOTDY is a Martinez score. One of the instruments he’s most known for using is seemingly present here: the Cristal Baschet, a multi-timbral percussion instrument that often sounds like a crystalline synth patch. Martinez wields it as if it’s a part of him, and so it remains one of the most expressive elements of this score.  

Cliff Martinez Hotel Artemis
Cliff Martinez with a Cristal Baschet. Photo by Spencer Lowell.

Martinez: A Master of the Unconventional

Martinez has always made noteworthy film and television scores that complement a narrative in a way that is nevertheless seeking to try something new. His work on Refn’s Drive (2011) and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) alike have proven to be game-changers that are influential on what came after in film music. However, it’s not just his extended collaborations that yield important results. For example: Let’s not forget his scores for Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis (2018), for James Cox’s Wonderland (2003), and Alan Moyle’s classic Pump Up the Volume (1990). All are representative of major high points in film scoring. (His work on video game Far Cry 4 is great, too.)

But there’s something to be said about Martinez’s partnerships with Soderbergh and Refn, the latter kicking off with Drive. It does seem like there’s some kind of special and singular artistic energy that sparks when Refn and Martinez work together. In addition to his colorful kinesis on Drive, consider these examples of what came after: the fusion of Only God Forgives and the electro horror of The Neon Demon.

On the music for TOTDY, paired with Refn’s stylized and colorful tale of the dirty underbelly of LA organized crime — as told through the auteur’s particular flavor of mysticism, vengeance, deliberate pacing, and compelling acting — that partnership has reached a new and more powerful connection. This is particularly evident when you hear the music in action as you watch the show. Martinez seems to challenge Refn to build the best world possible for the music to do its duty and Refn seems to challenge Martinez to suitably fill it with his most expansive, expressive, and engaging score yet. What a time to be alive.

Epilogue: There are also some great songs on this soundtrack, too. Julian Winding’s electro cut “Summassault” has the boisterous intensity and dance-floor sensibilities of “Demon Dance,” his contribution to The Neon Demon, and Foreplay, his latest EP. Goldfrapp’s T. Rex homage “Ooh La La” augments the set list, as does “F.F.A.,” a catchy and raunchy cut from Swedish rock group The Leather Nun. An additional three cuts all serve to both complement the story and, at times, offer a counterpoint to Martinez’s score: Frankie Miller’s underrated country gem, “I Put the Blue in Her Eyes”; and Jimmy Angel and the Jason Gutierrez 3’s rock ‘n’ roll number “Elvis and Marilyn” and Carolina Hoyos’ acoustic “La Alta Sacredota de la Muerto” round out the tracklist.

Editor’s Note: I’ve only seen the first episode of TOTDY, and therefore my review is based on two-dozen listens of the soundtrack and one viewing of the first episode.

The Too Old to Die Young soundtrack will receive the deluxe vinyl treatment via Milan Records. The label has been a longtime Refn partner. In addition to releasing most of his films’ soundtracks — except for Drive — Milan also partners with him for the NWR Presents vinyl series. Examples of releases include Electric Youth’s Breathing, Disasterpeace’s It Follows, and Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator. The release is pressed on a pair of colored vinyl and housed in a beautiful gatefold jacket.

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