The Mulholland Drive director's new songs are as bizarre as his films, and that's how he wanted it
Roy Orbison is said to have been taken aback by the use of his song "In Dreams" in the 1986 film Blue Velvet, and you can understand why. The movie, directed by surrealist visionary David Lynch, injects the song with violent, even sadistic, power. At one point, the deranged character Frank Booth (played by the late Dennis Hopper) clenches his face in furious ecstasy as he listens to the love ballad, which later serves as the literal backdrop for an episode of his psychotic cruelty. After watching, it's difficult to hear the otherwise gentle track with innocent ears.
This is how David Lynch soundtracks work: not as an addition to the film, but rather as an inextricable part of it. The 65-year-old director of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, and a host of other cult favorites personally composes some of the songs for his scores; during shooting, he often wears headphones playing music that "marries" the scene at hand; and he has written entire scenes based upon a song. In fact, he and long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, the composer for numerous Lynch films, recorded the ominous theme song of Mulholland Drive before any scenes were even shot. "I love music for lots of reasons," Lynch said in a recent phone call from Paris, "but one real important reason is that many times, ideas will come out of music—ideas for different things, like cinema and painting."
Lynch's solo debut album Crazy Clown Time, which comes out today, marks his most substantial foray into music beyond the big screen. Certainly, the famously polymathic Lynch has considerable experience in this arena: He has produced the albums of wispy crooner Julee Cruise, collaborated with Danger Mouse on Dark Night of the Soul, and co-released the experimental rock album BlueBob. But Crazy Clown Time, which was recorded over a year at his own studio in Hollywood, is a distinctly solo effort (Dean Hurley, the manager of Asymmetrical Studio since 2005, served as the album's sound engineer). As with so many of Lynch's projects, the new record is predictably unpredictable, stamped with his odd, often grotesque, vision in a way that both confounds and inspires admiration. Most listeners will likely agree that the 14-track work is in character for Lynch. But while we recognize the speaker's voice, his vocabulary has changed. What does "Lynchian" music sound like?
The most distinctive feature of Crazy Clown Time is Lynch's singing, which frees every song on the album from the musical genres that seem sort of, but not entirely, applicable: "modern blues," "rock," "ambient," even "dance." Listen to the first 10 seconds of every track, and the music style will seem familiar (a stripped-down Portishead often comes to mind). But any sense of comfort vanishes as soon as Lynch opens his mouth. So idiosyncratic are his vocals that the indie-rock sensibility on the album's first track—the driving, nervous "Pinky's Dream," featuring the liquid vocals of Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O—makes for the most accessible thing here. Even after repeated listens, Lynch's voice remains unfamiliar and distant, yet somehow viscerally invasive.
Hurley, the album's engineer, said that Lynch hated the sound of his own voice and sought to tweak it beyond recognition. The result can be blankly robotic. In "Strange and Unproductive Thinking," for example, Lynch's delivery is rendered monotonous and feathery, with a metallic hardness at the edges. Stripped of personality, this particular vocal style almost blends into the background. In contrast, the tracks that reveal the distinctively Lynchian air of eerie unpleasantness—difficult to digest, but too weird to ignore—are those that preserve traces of his normal speaking voice (a nasal intone that he self-mocked in a Twin Peaks cameo as a hearing-impaired FBI agent who always shouts). In "Football Game," Lynch sounds as though he has a mouth full of cotton balls, producing a drunken, slobbering slur. In "Crazy Clown Time," Lynch warbles lines like, "It was crazy clown time! Crazy clown time-e-e! It was real fun." in the falsetto, sing-song fashion of a cartoon character, even delivering a satisfied grunt as a woman moans persistently all throughout (the song, as Hurley noted, sounds like "a site you shouldn't be on"). In "Speed Roadster," Lynch's "singing" is of a spoken, irregular quality, like a reeling barroom confession set against the simple backdrop of a steady beat and gravelly guitar: "I know you fucked Al, he's supposed to be my pal," Lynch drawls. "I guess you'd say I might be stalkin' you."
The best tracks on Crazy Clown Time are evocative, gritty mood pieces. They fuse the haunting, "tragically beautiful" solemnity of Badalamenti's most well-known compositions (think of the opening credits of Twin Peaks), with a swingy looseness inspired by jazz and blues (think of the dancing dwarf in Peaks). The result is an interesting balance of serious and playful, controlled and experimental—in the best cases, both sides complement, rather than negate, the other, to produce a precisely Lynchian vibe of foreboding and creepy dissonance. This is why "So Glad" and "I Know" are among the most compelling tracks on the album: The bluesy twang of the instrumentals and the unmoored pitches of Lynch's free-ranging vocals are encased within somber stillness, creating moody tension. In contrast, the album's weaker songs feel sparser, melodically flat and, in some cases, actually didactic ("Strange and Unproductive Thinking" is a manifesto monologue that not subtly references transcendental meditation, which Lynch practices, and contains phrases like "the magical and mystical level of cosmic awareness").
Lynch said that he was not "really trying to convey anything" through Crazy Clown Time, and had been primarily driven by the "fun and joy" of its creation. This nonchalance regarding the "meaning" of his work is a hallmark of his career. In his short book Catching the Big Fish, which discusses his process of "fishing" for ideas, there is a chapter titled "The Box and the Key," in reference to the mysterious objects that appear in Mulholland Drive; it contains one line: "I don't have a clue what those are." But Lynch said that his recent album has cultural resonances that, though not explicitly intended, came about spontaneously. "Lyrics start coming, and the feelings start coming—so it's kind of a big surprise, really," he said. "And when you get a bunch of songs together and hear them at once, a kind of story of the world comes. It's strange how it happens." He points out the title track, "Crazy Clown Time," as a song that "indicates a certain thing happening in the world. And I don't know exactly what it is, but it's a party world, it's a barbecue world, and it's a world of beer. I know that people know this world, and it is a fun world. At the same time, it might be a diversion so that we don't see something else going on over there in the corner."
Experimentation was the guiding principle of the album, according to Hurley, who accompanied Lynch on each of the tracks. When the duo grew bored with jamming over pre-recorded beats, they switched to a looser format to open up more possibilities: Hurley manned the drum set as Lynch sang and played guitar. These sessions produced songs like "Football Game," "The Night Bell With Lightning," and "Crazy Clown Time"—perhaps not the best songs, Hurley said, but certainly the rawest and purest cuts on the album. Other tactics were more haphazard: Lynch would tell Hurley to alter a track through a variety of arbitrary methods ("chop the thing in half, reverse the second half," etc.). "Half the time, it's complete horse manure," Hurley recalled. "The other time, there's this one little thing that's exciting, like 'Wow, listen to those two notes on top of each other.' All of a sudden, it's like there's somebody on a microphone saying, David, you know what to do now."
One of Lynch's most famous characters is Twin Peaks' Agent Dale Cooper, whose unconventional methods for a murder investigation is best exemplified in a classic scene in which he pelts rocks at a glass jar to determine the culpability of the townspeople (the country of Tibet is somehow involved as well). The ever-cheery Cooper does not have a detective's cold rationality, and he relies on his intuitive powers—not to mention jazz-fueled dreams populated by dwarves and giants—to solve the case. His method escapes logical explanation; his process is distinctly un-intellectual. Similarly, Lynch is fervently loyal to his unconscious inclinations, believing in the importance of committing to a creative path no matter how inconceivable the destination may be at the moment of departure. In his own words, upon latching onto an initial idea, he is led—almost helplessly and blindly, but happily enough—through a procession of new revelations. "You're going along, and you don't have an idea," Lynch said. "And you go along a little longer, and you don't have an idea—and lo and behold, something happens, and boom! You get an idea you fall in love with, and you're kind of helpless—you have to do that thing. If I fall in love with a girl, she may not be a girl you want to bring home to your parents, but you're in love. What can you do?"
This creative resignation helps explain why Crazy Clown Time never looks to ingratiate itself with listeners. As Lynch said, "The best thing that we can do is to enjoy the doing of our work, and to do it the best we can, and then when it goes out into the world, you just have to let it go. You can't control what people are going to say or feel or think." Perhaps this is an important exercise in its own right: Lynch's album can help remind us of what it means to sit still and simply listen, even when we're not seduced in the usual ways. Lynch dares to disturb, and that requires a bravery that cares not for our comfort, but for the integrity of the art itself.