It’s not entirely fair to draw comparisons between the soundtracks to the Coen Brothers films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. After all, the movies are noticeably different. The former is a comedy set in the rural American South of 1937, while the latter takes place in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Inside Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack, however, features O Brother’s MVP T-Bone Burnett, who co-produced both records alongside Joel and Ethan Coen.
The record shares something else with its predecessor: It’s damn good. Without having seen the film (which opens in the U.S. next month), it’s hard to know exactly how well these songs fit into its context, though the movie’s stars—Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands, and Oscar Isaac, who portrays main character Llewyn Davis—ably perform many of them. Soundtrack associate producer Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons) helps out, as does Bob Dylan and The Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile. Burnett’s typically warm and meticulous production is a perfect fit.
Like the record that accompanied O Brother, Inside Llewyn Davis’soundtrack consists mainly of acoustic guitars, mandolins, upright basses, and tight harmonies, but because the performances are so good, the arrangements never get old. “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” a beautiful traditional ballad, appears twice; in both versions—one featuring Isaac and Mumford, one with Isaac solo—the heartbreak is palpable. Timberlake, Mulligan, and Sands do a fine job on “Five Hundred Miles,” a song popularized by The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, And Mary. Timberlake is especially impressive here; it’s striking to hear a voice usually reserved for pop used instead as a subtle instrument to portray sadness and regret.
Dylan pops up with the previously unreleased “Farewell,” originally recorded in 1964 for The Times They Are A-Changin’. The song is lovely, but its inclusion makes one wonder about the authenticity of the other songs on Llewyn Davis, which in comparison sound more vocally and musically contemporary (Mumford sounds especially modern; his growly, heartfelt delivery more closely resembles his band’s passionate folk-pop than the comparatively straight-laced New York folk of the early sixties). Though it’s hard to fault a record for featuring an unheard gem by Bob Dylan, the song distracts from the album’s stylistic consistency.
Also distracting is “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a topical-in-1961 song about the space race which is unquestionably funny—its lyrics include the refrain “Please don’t shoot me into outer space” and the line “I need to breathe, don’t need to be a hero / And are you reading me loud and clear? Oh!”—but so tonally different from the rest of Llewyn Davis that it jarringly interrupts the record’s flow.
Film soundtracks can seldom be appreciated as standalone works, but the music from Inside Llewyn Davis is a notable, and welcome exception to the rule. As evident in both their film and musical work, the Coen brothers are getting good at creating exceptions.