Published Dec 18, 2020The soundtrack to Pixar's new animated masterpiece Soul is, essentially, two scores in one.
On the one hand, you've got music by New Orleans artist Jon Batiste (known as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). His contributions are mostly peppy jazz, ranging from the solo piano reverie of "Born to Play Reprise" to the horn-fuelled strut of "Feel Soul Good." Appearing as diegetic sound in Soul — most often performed by the film's lead character, a middle school band teacher named Joe — this lively jazz represents the earthly world in the film's exploration of a soul's journey.
Representing the spiritual realm, the other half of the soundtrack goes to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The mood-setting Nine Inch Nails duo brilliantly capture the film's psychedelic depiction of the afterlife (and the before-life) with twinkling electronic soundscapes that range from ominously sublime ambience ("The Great Beyond") to bubbly and serene ("Portal/The Hall of Everything").
With gently thudding beats and major key pads, Reznor and Ross give their contributions a soothing new age feel that recalls their work on Mid90s or Gone Girl, rather than their more ominous and industrial sound design on Watchmen or Bird Box. Things do get a little harsh and eerie on "Lost Soul," but their work here is mostly sweet and pretty enough to be appropriate for a family film.
The score also features a goofy hip-hop interlude from Daveed Diggs ("Rappin Ced") and a folk-soul ballad by Cody Chesnutt ("Parting Ways"). These aren't bad, exactly, but they add a sense of scattered incoherence to an album that, with 42 songs and a runtime of barely more than hour, already moves at a frantic pace.
Soul might have flowed better had it been divvied up into two distinct haves — one side for Batiste and another for Reznor and Ross — rather than bouncing back and forth between the two styles; many streaming listeners are probably already creating their own playlists for which half they like best.
The best moments of all come when Reznor and Ross successfully blur the lines between the score's two distinct styles: "Earthbound" and the gorgeous "Epiphany" are hypnotic piano meditations, and "Pursuit" begins as jittery jazz before melting into spooky electronic pulses.
While Soul's ultra-short track lengths make it feel a little underdeveloped as a stand-alone soundtrack, it makes a strong calling card for the beautifully scored film. (Pixar/Disney)