Music Reviews

A Lot is Thrown at the Wall and Sticks in Danny Elfman’s BIG MESS

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Genre: Alternative

Favorite Tracks: “Sorry,” “Everybody Loves You,” “Love in the Time of COVID,” “Cruel Compensation”

It’s nice to know that Danny Elfman hasn’t been dulled by decades of scoring film and that he is still the same madman from when he was the lead creative force for Oingo Boingo. His COVID project, BIG MESS, finds the prolific composer returning to the similar devilish vein his old band sprang from, albeit no songs about masturbation or pedophiles this time around. At over an hour long, BIG MESS feels like two albums with distinct stylistic differences split between the first eight songs and the last ten. It is exactly what it says on the tin and I don’t blame anyone for bouncing right off it; to get straight to the point: I really, really, really enjoy this album, although it did take me a few listens before it fully clicked. 

But what the hell is BIG MESS, in terms of genre? Apple Music calls it “alternative,” but it’s a conclusion I’m offering about the album while making a real big shrug and going “eeeeeeeeeeeh?” in an ascending high-pitched voice. Elfman’s music, while often harsh, is not without melody, and utilizes all the usual components of a rock band with orchestral and electronic flourishes. Of course, the trademark Elfman staccato is heavily utilized throughout, his disparate elements sounding either disjointed or oddly cohesive depending on what he is trying to achieve with a given song.

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It’s best to disect the two parts separately, but first it’s important to note that both have a similar issue. The songs that open each respective half—”Sorry” and “Happy”— are both excellent, but also represent the most extreme versions of the styles embodied in their respective segments. It’s a legitimate failing that the opening songs don’t properly set expectations—I was very excited to listen to the album that “Sorry” promised, a track crammed with multi-layered instruments, chunky metal riffs, and Elfman’s voice brimming at the peak of wrath. Both set expectations for what the rest of the album is going to be, but neither capture the same feverish-yet-constructed climax of rage that is “Sorry” or the unapologetic zaniness that is “Happy.” 

There is an earnestness and seriousness to the songs in BIG MESS’s first half, as he means what he says. The songs in the album’s second half are more ironic and dripping with punk attitude. There is a lot of variation during the songs of part one, but they’re all quite focused, very much structured according to the laws of tension and release, each ending in a satisfying climax despite a plethora of playful flourishes. Those best moments are the crescendos and the swells, which of course would be nothing without expert build-up. These songs are intricate, and clearly there was a lot of thought put into their construction. Despite being seven minutes long, “Everybody Loves You,” a song that sounds like Elfman is processing his imposter syndrome in real-time, feels much shorter thanks to the number of transitions that are drastically different but build on similar melodic motifs. It’s a chorus that will get stuck in your head. The album’s early songs can also be mellow, like on “In Time,” “Dance With the Lemurs,” or the closer of this segment, “We Belong.” Each provides much-needed breathing room between the other harsher tracks, like the screechy and claustrophobic “True.”

BIG MESS’s second half is far more unhinged. While the album’s song construction starts as playful, by part two it becomes frenetic or manic by comparison. Songs like “Happy,” “Love in the Time of COVID,” and “Insects” are meant to be constantly surprising and knocking you off balance. I thrill at the skronky falsetto of the chorus from “Love in the Time of COVID” and how it cuts into a groovy bass run which undergirds the song completely breaking down during the post-chorus. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea-especially the bit where Elfman shouts “I WANT TO HAVE SEX” directly into your ears-but if you can let yourself be swept away by some truly silly and twisted music that still somehow slaps, you’re in for a real treat.

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Not all the songs are such a Mr. Bungle-esque hodgepodge of styles. In fact, the majority of the songs on the album’s second half are abrasive punk, with the occasional stylistic oddity layered in. Some of these tracks are the ones that fall most flat on the album, like “Kick Me,” “Just a Human,” and the incredibly trite “Native Intelligence.” But others, like “Devil Take Away” and “Cruel Compensation,” are some of the most rollicking punk-tinged fun I’ve had in a while.

Much like the albums of Oingo Boingo, your mileage will vary depending on how on Elfman’s wavelength you are. I personally think part one is the stronger half, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if someone found it to be slow and tedious. More so than most music, you really get out of BIG MESS what you’re willing to put into it—it would make sense if you can’t bring yourself to give it very much. If you can, though, you’re in for a sonic experience unlike anything else.

Drew Petriello
Drew listens to too much heavy metal and plays too many grand strategy games. He prefers to write fiction, primarily plays, but his hard drive is a graveyard of projects in all mediums. Three of his plays have been produced at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. He maintains a blog at drewpetriello.com where you can read him blather on about heavy metal/cope with existential dread.

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