A welcomed return to the rock world
With over 40 years (and counting) in the music world under his belt, Danny Elfman is anything but quiet. He spends year after year constantly churning out film scores, having completely devoted himself to the craft after his divorce from rock music in 1995 upon Oingo Boingo’s dissolution. But his presence is so steady that we take him for granted. No longer a “rock star,” Elfman has eschewed the spotlight and faded comfortably into the background—the same guy who made his bones writing songs like “Little Girls” now prefers to spend his time soundtracking our childhoods.
So when he announced Big Mess earlier this year, listeners were understandably shocked. Elfman’s last solo rock album was 1984’s So-Lo. That’s 37 years of classical pieces and film scores with nary a guitar in sight. Like so many artists over the past year, he was spurred into action by the COVID-19 pandemic.
His rock impulses started coming out again as early as 2019, when he decided to perform at the following year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with a “half live band, half film music” set that would’ve included some new guitar-based songs along with older Oingo Boingo material. Of course, the festival was eventually canceled, and lockdowns quickly ensued, after which Elfman and his family isolated themselves in a home where he only had access to an electric guitar and a handheld microphone.
This gave him the opportunity to expand on the rock energy that the festival date initially inspired him to return to—energy that proved useful in expressing his frustration with the pandemic and the country’s political climate of the past five years. “I think (returning to rock) took the frustration of where I was last year,” he told Variety. “I was really angry and really frustrated, and I was depressed, you know? These are the elements that turn you toward lyrics. Expressing anger with orchestral music is hard.”
Elfman certainly got political on this record, but don’t get too excited. He’s a musician, first and foremost—not much of a social critic. His lyrics about the past year’s political and social ills are hackneyed and never as deep or revelatory as he seems to think.
Donald Trump’s presidency is a common theme, but on tracks like “Serious Ground,” Elfman mistakes it for the chief cause, rather than a symptom, of the country’s rot. As for the pandemic stuff, Elfman does a good job of sending up the broad social problems that COVID-19 exacerbated, like the dilution of sex and intimacy wrought by technology on the grinding “Love In The Time Of Covid.” But his concerns are occasionally bogged down by tacky pop culture references—it’s hard to imagine lyrics about Snapchat and Minecraft will age well, for example.
If half-baked social commentary isn’t your thing, fear not. Elfman’s lyrical shortcomings are ultimately easy to overlook because, once again, he’s a musician first, and his songwriting ability is just that good.
Oingo Boingo might be long behind him, with their ska horns and keyboards replaced by an onslaught of bizarre-industrial scuzz, but Elfman’s pop aplomb hasn’t gone anywhere. Big Mess is filled with instantly catchy tunes, from “Everybody Loves You” to “Devil Take Away,” which sounds classic rock-inspired with its bluesy guitar licks and sweeping chorus. Lead single “Happy” and “Serious Ground” are two more highlights, showcasing some of Elfman’s catchiest vocal melodies since Only A Lad.
Nine Inch Nails has been a common point of comparison for this album’s schizophrenic blend of industrial metal and orchestral music (“chamber-punk,” as Elfman calls it). While that’s not far off, Big Mess is too cartoonish and spastic to entirely fit the bill. Think more along the lines of Marilyn Manson or even Mr. Bungle: campy, carnivalesque, laden with quirky song structures but unmistakably metal.
Nearly every track excites people, especially in the first half of the album. Raunchy walls of guitar noise usually don’t pair well with string arrangements, but Elfman makes it work by using the strings more like rhythm instruments than flourishment. Because of this, they add to the drive of each track, working with the guitars to form an irresistible kinetic whole. “Love In The Time Of Covid” slinks and grinds like something off Pretty Hate Machine, and even the political songs, despite their questionable depth, sound like they could fire up a crowd with their energy alone.
Clocking in at over an hour long, the album could have used some editing, though. The excitement begins to dwindle down in the second half with a sequence of lackluster tracks starting with the forgettable “Native Intelligence.” Things briefly pick up again with “Kick Me,” on which Elfman gleefully takes the piss out of celebrity narcissism, and the album ends strong on a vivacious, Gang of Four-esque rendition of Oingo Boingo’s “Insects.” Big Mess is by no means a big mess, but it’d certainly feel more consistent if four or five lesser tracks had been cut.
Despite its slightly bloated tracklist and one-dimensional lyrical content, Big Mess is every bit as deranged, energized and tuneful as people have come to expect from Elfman, with a fancy new industrial edge to boot. It’s almost as if he never actually left the rock world—here’s hoping he decides to stick around a bit longer.