Although the majority of the money made by the soundtrack to the recent The Hunger Games film will come because of the words “The Hunger Games” on the front cover, even if the collection of songs bore no association with the hyper-successful series of novels, it would still be a package worth taking in: the sixteen songs, most of which come from great bands like the Decemberists and the Punch Brothers, is a musical romp through the film’s dystopian Appalachia which manages, in the end, to stand on its own two feet.
The songs on The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond are without a doubt free-standing, and do not need to hinge on their relationship with the film The Hunger Games or the trilogy of novels. In fact, only three of the songs even appear in the film, and they’re all played over the credits. There is, however, a theme that smacks of the film and novels: the majority of the songs concern the thematic struggles of the book, which are those for identity, survival and freedom in a tyrannical world. The latter theme is exemplified in Kid Cudi’s standout “The Ruler and the Killer,” which, while not as good as the rapper’s past work, provides a shadowy counterpoint to the delicate filler folk that peppers the album (I’m looking at you, “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”).
The folky theme is questionable at first considering that the majority of the film and books is spent detailing teen-on-teen violence, but given that the theme is embodied by such excellent songs as “Safe and Sound” by Taylor Swift and “Kingdom Come” by the Civil Wars, I prefer it to what could have easily been a nightmarish slew of tense, industrial, grungy songs. Rather, these songs center more on protagonist Katniss Everdeen (whose portrayal by Jennifer Lawrence was the high point of the film) than the Hunger Games themselves; and the tenderness of the folky instrumentation conveys the struggle and emotion of the Hunger Games story better than anything concentrating on the bloodshed of the arena would have.
According to what I have found, nearly every song seems to have been co-written by one T-Bone Burnett, and, whatever the reasoning behind hiring the Grammy-award-winning producer to take charge of the album rather than leaving the bands to their own devices, things certainly paid off. The lyricism both makes strong ties to the thematic veins, but more often manifests in strong and independent tracks like Birdy’s “Just A Game” and Arcade Fire’s exceptional “Abraham’s Daughter,” which is a driving, haunting, Biblical parallel to Katniss’ story.
While it may not be devoid of duds like “Rules” and “Lover Is Childlike” (and what potluck of musicians could be?), Songs from District 12 and Beyond is something worth noting. This soundtrack is a wholesome package that delivers in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that it bears only a glancing relation to the film by which it is inspired. Perhaps the secret of the album is in its title: these are songs from District 12, in which only 30 minutes of the movie are set. Nevertheless, the soundtrack’s synthesis of multiple genres manages to be an atmospheric depiction of a girl’s struggle for survival and happiness, Hunger Games or not. Score: 7/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor