Eraserhead: Original Soundtrack Recording Album Review
Written by Richie Corelli
Released by Sacred Bones Records
Composed by David Lynch and Alan R. Splet
Reissued on June 6th, 2017
The movie Eraserhead was not well-received upon its 1977 release. It was too strange, too surreal. But it slowly built a following while running the midnight movie circuit. As the years went on, retrospective reviews began to acknowledge the film's influence and artistry. Even people who were put-off by the film's opaque narrative, admired the movie's dark beauty. With its severe lighting, its watchful framing, its horrific symbolism, and its penchant for pattern-finding, Eraserhead is a movie that shows off director David Lynch's ocular prowess.
But the visuals are only half of it.
As much as it is a work for the eyes, Eraserhead is a work for the ears. David Lynch and Alan Splet spent a year in the studio, working on sound collages to lay behind the film's visuals and help bring the movie to life. They didn't just show moviegoers what an industrial landscape looked like, they showed their audiences what it sounded like. They designed a soundtrack to invoke a sense of feeling. And in doing this, they also released a proto-dark-ambient work that would influence and inspire musicians for years to come.
The duo experimented with different sound editing techniques, using unorthodox methods to create an atmosphere filled with spooky train-yard rhythms, howling winds, and murky hidden melodies. Eraserhead whirrs, clicks, and shudders. It mixes familiar sounds, like running water, barking dogs, breaking glass, tweeting birds, and creaking bedsprings with the roar of unidentifiable noise. Something unknown hisses menacingly. Machinery crackles. A hyperventilating newborn chokes on the air. It otherworldly. It's scary.
Threatening atmospheric textures build Eraserhead's core sound, but there is melody to this record too. Five-and-a-half minutes into the first side, a pipe organ wrestles its way into the mix. The organ is a sample of "The Digah's Stomp", a late '20s pipe-organ piece by jazz-great Fats Walker. The samples creates a warm nostalgia. It's a distant warmth – Lynch and Splet kept "The Digah's Stomp" far beneath the surface – but it's enough to remind the listener that this industrial world is still inhabited by humans. (Lynch and Splet repeat this process a few more times. Three additional Walker pieces, "Lenox Avenue Blues", "Stompin' the Bug", and "Messin' Around with the Blues" swim deep through Eraserhead's murky waters. Like "Digah's Stomp", the samples are brief, buried, and strangely effective.)
During the second side of the album, the listener is treated to "In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)". It's the closest thing Eraserhead has to a traditional song. The track, written by former New Wave Theater host Peter Ivers, sews a pop melody into Eraserhead's experimental fabric. As thick organs stroll forward, Ivers sings in a breathy falsetto. "In Heaven / Everything is fine / In Heaven / Everything is fine / In Heaven / Everything is fine / You got your good things / And I've got mine." The lyrics and melody are incredibly infectious, leaving an imprint of the song in the listener's brain long after the record has ended.
In addition to the song's placement in the soundtrack, Sacred Bones Records included an additional 7" of "In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)" with the package. The song is the same, but it feels different depending on format. On the full album, it works as a respite. It's a moment of warmth in an otherwise cold world. On the 7" it feels like a dream pop track and moves forward on its own merits. (As a bonus, the 7" features a B-side titled "Pete's Boogie", a haunting organ piece buried deep within Eraserhead's already established atmospheric textures.)
If there is a misstep on this album, it comes with the vocal samples. At some point, the ambience fades almost entirely, giving way to a series of vocal samples from the film. The samples help to strengthen the rope that ties the soundtrack to the film, but they shift the focus away from the music. Fortunately, Lynch and Splet only use this as a rest stop. The samples play brief, and once they serve their purpose, they are silenced.
Erasherhead's position on music history's timeline is important. The soundtrack is one of the leading dark ambient albums because it was one of the first. Cabaret Voltaire, Nurse With Wound, :zoviet*france:, Einstürzende Neubauten, Lustmørd, and Coil all share Lynch and Splet's aesthetic. They all came out with pivotal records after Eraserhead. Cold Meat Industry, which was arguably the premier record label for dark ambient music, didn't come about until 1987, ten years after Eraserhead's debut. Aphex Twin's mid-'90s masterwork, Selected Ambient Works Volume II shares much with Lynch and Splet's soundtrack. Leyland Kirby's sample-work on his The Caretaker albums call to Eraserhead's Fats Walker samples. Contemporary artists like Tim Hecker, Christian Fennesz, Oneothrix Point Never, Andy Stott, and Demdike Stare all owe influence to Eraserhead.
Sacred Bones, who originally reissued Eraserhead in 2012, put this pressing out as a celebration of their 10th anniversary. They did it right. The silver vinyl comes with deluxe 16-page book, three 11"x11" prints, and the aforementioned a silver vinyl 7". Sacred Bones packs a download card with their physical products. This allows listeners to enjoy their music on the go through their phones, laptops, and tablets. It's an appreciated bonus. Listening to Eraserhead through headphones on public transportation is a completely different experience. Overall, this is an exquisite set of an exquisite recording.