Joanna Newsom's 2015 album Divers showcased the ways in which the songwriter could fill in her compositions with rich sonic colorings akin to orchestral arrangements. Newsom recorded with members of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. But her spare compositions have always been imbued with a haunting yet warm quality that transports the listener to highly personal and otherworldly emotional spaces, resulting in the unique appeal of her avant-garde folk.
There is a pastoral cinematic quality to Newsom's music that suggests it could accompany a movie dealing with dreams and aspirations. Yet perhaps the strongest film placement of Newsom's music can be seen in the 2008 home-invasion-themed horror movie The Strangers. In the film, a couple returns late at night from a dinner in which Kristen McKay, played by Liv Tyler, tells James Hoyt, played by Scott Speedman, that she isn't ready to marry him. It's then that a mysterious stranger knocks on the door of a house on the edge of town looking for someone named Tamara.
At the 18:20 mark, McKay puts on Newsom's 2004 record The Milk-Eyed Mender to calm her nerves, and we hear the tender strains of “The Sprout and the Bean.” The character is alone in her now-ex-fiancé's house, waiting on him to return with cigarettes. While the song plays out, McKay looks at the still-extant artifacts of Hoyt's childhood in the home when there is another knock at the door. The music fades into the background as the menace grows, and the stranger asks for Tamara again.
As the scene plays out, it becomes clear that the sound editors and music supervisors used Newsom's song to represent more innocent times, which echo through markings on a door jamb indicating Hoyt's growth spurts as a boy. The song disappears completely when the character identified later as Dollface comes knocking. When the knocking becomes aggressive, the music returns as a skipping record that curiously keeps playing a bit of Gillian Welch's “Quicksilver Girl,” suggesting what is revealed later: that the killers have already been inside and perhaps swapped out the record. Or maybe it's just a deliberately artful continuity error.
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Whatever the reason for the scene's song switch, it is Newsom's beautifully delicate song that provides the dramatic tension and contrast between wistful anticipation of forgiveness and reconciliation and a state of abject terror and violation. You are lulled, for a moment, into thinking that things will ultimately work out. And it is that song that lasts in your mind long after the movie, because it is the song, more than the movie, that holds the power to soothe and, in spite of the situation on screen, induce an introspective, reflective mood — which is, of course, one of Newsom's greatest gifts as a songwriter.
Joanna Newsom with Robin Pecknold at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 3, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, 303-786-7030, $35-45 (currently sold out), all ages.