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We’re Not So Different, You and I: Go Listen to the 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack

By Ruth Engel | Think Pieces | November 5, 2013 |

By Ruth Engel | Think Pieces | November 5, 2013 |

The Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack is streaming at NPR first listen right now, and I highly recommend checking it out. The film, the latest from the Coen Brothers, is set in 1961 and follows Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for a week as he makes his way through the New York folk scene. It also stars Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and John Goodman, and looks like it’ll be more popular among white folks than Trader Joe’s Kale Chips.

The album itself is lovely - Oscar Isaac’s voice is so compelling that I’m sure his performance in the movie will be beyond reproach even if he doesn’t act at all. It includes a number of instantly recognizable folk standards, including one of my all-time favorites,” 500 Miles.” Marcus Mumford collaborates on an aching version of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” that contains no frenetic banjo strumming, and Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers bring warmth and a fiddle into the mix.

The incredible T-Bone Burnett produces the soundtrack. He notably worked with the Coen Brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and recently touched upon the enduring magic of that soundtrack in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, saying:

O Brother Where Art Thou? came out 11 or 12 years ago, so people who are in their 20s now were in their early teenage years when it came out, and it would have made a deep impression on them. All those kids refer back to that film as their portal into this whole world of 20th century American music. There’s also a big trend of 21st century musicians going back through the 20th century and reinterpreting it, redefining it — post-modernism, really — bringing new life into songs that had seemed to be worn through. People come up to me and tell me that was an important record to that generation. We all owe the Coens a lot for creating that portal in the first place.

I’m now in my 20s, and Burnett nails me perfectly. Even though I had been raised on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan, O Brother became the album that defined folk music for me. My family listened to the CD on car trips, and many of the songs became staples at campfire sing-alongs (yes, actual sing-alongs around actual campfires).

The O Brother soundtrack is such a masterpiece because it doesn’t strive to literally recreate Depression Folk. The audience is looking back on an era, and the music looks back with them. It uses the songs and the desperation of the 1930s but also incorporates elements of gospel, updated harmonies, and a brashly anachronistic 1959 recording of “Po’ Lazarus.” Burnett pulls us back to the Depression not by creating an accurate record, but by working back along the long legacy of folk. He is right to call the O Brother a “portal” - it created an emotional window to a fairly inaccessible era. In 2000, when the film was released, it was hard to imagine an America as destitute and hopeless as the 1937 South had been. The music helps span that gap, drawing together familiar modern sounds and thirties standards to create a more understandable world.

The Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack builds a similar path, but it reflects our more nostalgic, self-aware world. Over the last decade, popular folk music has become more discernibly folk-y (remember Train’s “Drops of Jupiter?” Same era as O Brother). Now we have groups like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, and Of Monsters and Men churning out Top 40 hits. And it’s this culture that really makes the Llewyn Davis soundtrack interesting. Burnett and the Coens don’t shy away from using modern heavy-hitters, from Mumford to Justin Timberlake, who manages to be incredibly recognizable even when he has a twangy guitar instead of his Sexyback synth. Longtime Peter, Paul, and Mary fans might find the beat a little fast at times and the sound just slightly too clear, but will immediately recognize finger-picking patterns. The album feels like a self-conscious retrospective effort.

This awareness is the strength of the soundtrack. It provides music that feels as comforting and familiar as a cookie-cutter Mumford and Sons song, but contains fifty years of folk history. For audiences that unplugged from popular music years ago and are currently yelling at me to get off their lawns, the music will evoke nostalgia for a better time. But for the rest of us, the soundtrack contextualizes not only the well-known collaborating artists, but also much of today’s folk scene. I have no doubt that the film will feel similar, I can only hope that it will become as definitional to the teenagers in Bob Dylan t-shirts from Hot Topic as O Brother, Where Art Thou? was to me.