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Album Review: DANNY ELFMAN Big Mess

9/10 Reviewer

Danny Elfman is an artist who should need no introduction, but—just to be safe—here we go:

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Long before virtuosos like Clint Mansell and Trent Reznor stepped away from their respective bands (Pop Will Eat itself and Nine Inch Nails) to write film scores, Elfman had a dual purpose as Tim Burton’s go-to cinematic composer and the mastermind behind the charmingly madcap Oingo Boingo. (Of course, he’s done far more movie and television scores over the years, among numerous other projects, so that’s really just scratching the surface of his catalog.) Be it off-the-wall tracks like “Dead Man’s Party,” sublime bits of songwriting like “Mary,” or the iconic themes to The Simpsons, Tales from the Crypt, and Justice League, Elfman has continuously proven to be, well, a multifaceted musical genius.

That’s precisely why many fans’ expectations went through the roof when he announced his second solo LP, Big Mess. The official follow-up to 1984’s So-Lo (and his first popular music collection since Oingo Boingo’s exceptional 1994 farewell sequence, Boingo), Big Mess is—in Elfman’s words—decidedly “anti-pop.” In a nutshell, it unites his knacks for quirky yet catchy melodies, lavishly macabre yet playful orchestration, and various other characteristics into an immensely idiosyncratic and pleasing journey. Admittedly, its eighteen tracks (spread across a seventy-two-minute runtime) can feel a tad overbearing and repetitive overall, but that’s a minor gripe considering that Big Mess essentially delivers everything Elfman devotees could want—and then some.

Album Review: DANNY ELFMAN Big Mess
Danny Elfman (Photo: Jacob Boll)

Although he’s aided by many other musicians (such as percussionists Josh Freese and Sidney Hopson, bassist Stu Brooks, and guitarists Robin Finck and Nili Brosh), Elfman’s trademark temperaments and skills permeate every element and moment of Big Mess. As aptly described in the press release, the album “draw[s] on a dystopian palette of distorted electric guitars, industrial synthesizers, and orchestra in an effort to exorcise the demons brought about by four years of creeping fascism and civil rot.” It’s very much a synthesis of his two biggest roles—political/peculiar rocker and unparalleled symphonic maestro—and he recognizes (and celebrates) its multifaceted, hard to define essence. “I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a neat, easy-to-categorize record. It was always destined to be this crazy cacophony because that’s who I am. The Big Mess is me,” he admits. Indeed, it should be championed as a whirlwind of unbounded creativity as only Elfman could envision and produce.

Honestly, virtually every piece deserves analysis for simultaneously etching out its own identity amidst fitting into the cumulative Big Mess puzzle. Suffice it to say, though, that a handful of tunes exude Elfman’s propensity for wacky classical intricacy and ghoulishly industrial flights of fancy. In particular, “Happy” perfectly captures the delightfully robotic, eccentric, and magnificent flavor of several timeless Burton soundtracks (but with more modernized electronic edge). Plus, gems like “True,” “Choose Your Side,” “Devil Take Away,” “Native Intelligence,” and opener “Sorry” embody the motorized complexity of King Crimson, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and even certain David Bowie tunes. They’re all wonderfully elaborate, challenging, alluring, and symbolic of Elfman’s singular aesthetic.

Elsewhere, he illustrates his sustained merit as a top-notch songwriter. For instance, “In Time” and “We Belong” are beautifully haunting and contemplative, while successor “Everybody Loves You” is essentially a malevolent folk ballad with mind-blowing dynamic shifts. Afterward, “Dance with The Lemurs” evokes the childlike adventurousness of classic Oingo Boingo—but with a foundation of mesmerizing strings—before “Serious Ground” and “Love in the Time of COVID” conjure the eclectic arrangements of Kate Bush and Tori Amos. There’s even some tongue-in-cheek social commentary about being classism and elitism on the tenaciously monotonous and mechanical “Kick Me” ( “Kick me / I’m a celebrity / Losers not invited” and “Fuck me / I’m a billionaire / I love the attention”).

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It’s nearly impossible to imagine Elfman delivering a more representative and rewarding comeback than Big Mess. It faultlessly mixes his already beloved personas to demonstrate how capable and adventurous he remains at, well, everything he’s done over the last four decades. Beyond that, its surprisingly palpable and consistent air of aggressive sophistication means that the record often ventures into progressive metal territory. It’s a thrilling and commendable facet of his artistry that, if not entirely new, is certainly heightened here; it greatly enhances everything else that he brings to the table, allowing Big Mess to build upon the brilliance that Elfman’s maintained since he was only a lad.

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