Telling a story
The album’s mundanely descriptive title—The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2 (Original Soundtrack)—does nothing to convey what the listener is about to experience. The title is indeed accurate: the album is comprised of original music from the 2018 video game featuring songs written and co-written by Daniel Lanois and Rocco Deluca and performed by various artists such as Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson and D’Angelo. However, the album stands alone as its own enjoyable and complex work of art apart from its association to the game. Nonetheless, an understanding of the promise of Red Dead Redemption 2 is helpful for context when listening to the soundtrack. The game is set in the Wild West where players control the fictional Arthur Morgan as he rides horses, robs banks and enforces frontier justice.
The album opens with D’Angelo’s soulful “Unshaken” wherein his rich baritone D’Angelo asks “May I stand unshaken/ Amid, amidst a crashing world?” The song has a chorus that you want to listen to over and over the first time you hear it. D’Angelo is accompanied by acoustic guitar and a chorus of voices that give the song a spiritual quality. More than being a compelling song, this song appeals to the sacredness with which the Old West is often portrayed. Men living by their wits and morals in the Wild West is a story we are familiar with from movies with John Wayne, but in this case, the audience gets to interact with the story rather just view it. The soundtrack allows the player to immerse even more greatly in this narrative.
Much of this album has the tone of a great Western film soundtrack updated to fit this medium. “Mountain Hymn” by Rhiannon Giddens is a pensive song of acoustic guitar and a female voice. “The day is done/ the time is com/ You battled hard; the war is won/ You did your worst/ you tried your best/ Now it’s time to rest,” Giddens sings. The music tells its own story of movement and progress, beginnings must also entail endings. “Mountain Banjo” also by Giddens is a persistent banjo solo that follows “Mountain Hymn.” Without any words, the portrays movement and urgency, pushing itself forward and adding momentum to the album.
Willie Nelson’s “Cruel World” is one of the highlights of the album. It would fit on any country album with an ironically upbeat tone as Nelson sings “Cruel, cruel world, must I go on?” Josh Homme concludes the album with his own version of Nelson’s Cruel World. Homme’s version is more forlorn, tinged with more regret. Where Nelson sings as someone looking forward as he looks back when he sings “with this feeling deep inside/ I know now that I am homeward bound,” Homme sings with more weariness.
The album enhances the immersion in the Red Dead Redemption 2 story it accompanies, but it also tells its own story of progress and movement. There is never a dull moment as the album combines classic Western soundtracks and contemporary video game music. The album cycles from a passionate plea to “stand unshaken” to the wise acceptance of Homme’s “Cruel World,” mimicking the cycle of the character Morgan, or anyone, as time marches forward, reading to go home, but not done leaving their mark on the world.