Jóhann Jóhannsson was an Icelandic composer who scored numerous films including Sicario, The Theory of Everything, and Mandy. His discography also includes many solo works, and now Gold Dust: an EP released three years after his unexpected death.
I interviewed Jóhannsson for Cyclic Defrost six years ago. Like all interviews, I listen out thereafter for their new music, or latest projects. A fan for life, you could say. So when I learned unceremoniously of his death a few years later, it was like losing someone I knew, even if I did only know him for that brief conversation and was—I’m sure—forgotten by him soon after.
I took the opportunity to review this EP partly due to my continued interest, and partly due to seeking some kind of closure. I’m ultimately glad I did, but the EP at times feels more like a disordered gaggle than a cohesive swan song.
It starts out with ‘Head Full of Mush’, a morose soundscape where strings wash over each other like dappled moonlight playing in a forest stream, electronic textures undulate menacingly, and we’re treated to some inexplicably lousy mixing with 30 seconds of clipping disrupting the scene at the halfway point.
‘Watching My Armour Melt’ is a crushingly ominous and powerful opening track which comes in third in the track listing, followed by ‘Flag With a Cross’, a genuinely captivating piece with strings that seem to mourn the silence they destroy.
A counterpoint of optimistic beauty is wonderfully received in the aptly named ‘Standing in a Golden Field’, which could have acted as a troubled-yet-hopeful finale, but it’s followed up with ‘She’s Your Gift’, a quiet coda which leaves the project feeling unsettled; a story unfinished.
Perhaps that was the point. But as this is a posthumous release, it’s hard to say whether the disjointed flow and mixing oversights were intentional, or if this was just a label move to keep the wheels turning. The press release attached to the album reads “Jóhann’s body of work contains previously unreleased music never used by the projects it was composed for – held in purgatory by the constraints of the capitalist industrial machine”.
Make of that what you will, but remember this was a man who talked Aronofsky out of using his own soundtrack to the film mother! as he didn’t think it brought the best out of the film. Not one to release something just because it was there.
In all, Gold Dust has some staggering highs which do overwhelm the somewhat thrown together feeling of the whole piece. It’s a treat to hear anything new from Jóhannsson (and fun to speculate on whether any of it was from his shelved Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack) but I’m not confident it added to his legacy as an artist who took great consideration over every aspect of his work.