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GOOD OMENS – David Arnold

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I have been a fan of the late great British author Sir Terry Pratchett ever since I was a kid. Titles like The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Mort, and Pyramids were among my most treasured literary discoveries in the 1980s and 90s; the combination of fantasy, science-fiction, and historical adventure with a distinctly Pythonesque brand of English humor and wit appealed to my sensibility greatly. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, very few of his works have been translated into film or television projects, and even fewer of them have been seen outside of the UK, which means that while he remains massively popular at home, he is something of an unknown quantity to the rest of the world. This is why I’m so pleased that Good Omens has been so well received; it’s a 6-part TV adaptation of the novel Pratchett wrote with sci-fi author Neil Gaiman in 1990, and is a comedy about the end of the world. Michael Sheen and David Tennant star as Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, who have been living on Earth since the beginning of time as the official representatives of God and Satan. When they learn that the son of Satan has been born – an event which will in time trigger the apocalypse – Aziraphale and Crowley team up to stop it happening. It turns out that, over the millennia, the pair have become unlikely friends, and are not willing to give up their pleasant and comfortable lives in England – even if Armageddon is part of God’s ineffable plan.

The music for Good Omens is by the great David Arnold, and I can’t tell you what a joy it is to be able to review a new score by him after such a long time. In the 1990s and early 2000s Arnold was the most brilliant new British composer to emerge in years: in the fifteen years between 1994 and 2010 he wrote such magnificent scores as Stargate, Independence Day, Last of the Dogmen, Godzilla, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as well as several outstanding works in the James Bond series including Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Casino Royale. But then, following the release of the comedy Paul in 2011, he essentially stopped scoring movies. Although he has continued to be active on television, most notably scoring all 13 episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock series between 2010 and 2017, his international big-screen profile has dwindled to virtually nothing, and I, for one, miss him greatly. Arnold is a superb theme-writer, creates magnificent and creative action music, uses the orchestra to its fullest potential, and can elicit an emotion with the best of them – and all of this is evident in the score for Good Omens.

The whole thing is anchored around an outstanding main theme, which is introduced in full in the “Good Omens Opening Title.” The theme is essentially a waltz that accompanies Aziraphale and Crowley on their dance through eternity; it has superficial similarities to the theme from Sherlock, but with a more rich and lush and orchestral sound, albeit one that manages to include everything from sacred church voices, a boy soprano, and a vaguely comical oompah male voice choir, to the traditional sound of an East End London knees-up with its pianos and fiddles, and a fairground calliope. The theme is a total ear-worm, instantly memorable, a perfect encapsulation of the show’s three main themes: religious satire, genuine friendship, and an affection for the eccentricities inherent in British culture.

There are several other recurring themes that weave in and out of the score too. The more lyrical theme in the middle of the Opening Title is extrapolated into what appears to be a recurring Friendship Theme for Aziraphale and Crowley that gets statements in cues such as “Adam,” “Lullaby,” and “End of the Story”. Newton Pulsifer, the reluctant witch-finder played by comedian Jack Whitehall, receives a forlorn-sounding theme for guitars and string that is first introduced in “Newt.” Newt’s unexpected love interest, the witch Anathema Device, has her own theme, a vaguely country-ish piece for various guitars and a choir which is first introduced in “Anathema,” and receives some fun variations in cues like “Anathema Investigates”.

Adam Young, the unassuming English schoolboy destined to grow up to be the antichrist, is initially characterized by a pastoral theme that first appears in “The Them,” which is the name Adam and his gang of friends call themselves. The theme for The Them has pretty strings, guitars, an accordion pedal point, and has a touch of Michael Nyman to it, and the way it combines with Anathema’s theme in “Anathema Meets Them” is warm and friendly. However, as the young man becomes more attuned to his devilish fate, the theme becomes darker and more menacing; cues like “Adam Ascending” typify this with brooding orchestral textures, heavy drums, and rock guitars. In fact, everything to do with hell and its minions tends to have a heavy rock vibe, with thrumming and wailing guitars and heavy percussion typifying cues like “Hell Hound,” “Four Horsemen,” “Horsemen to the Airfield,” “On Your Bikes,” and “Despatch the Horsemen,” as well as “End Titles – The Theme That Got Left in the Car,” which is a fun rock version of the main theme that leans heavily on the guitar stylings of Brian May and Queen (many of whose songs also feature in the show’s soundtrack).

The elderly witch finder Shadwell (played by Michael McKean with a Scottish accent) also has a theme, which first appears in “I Should Cocoa” as a sprightly string rhythm full of effervescent orchestrations that lean heavily on harpsichords and dulcimers. Shadwell’s theme is a bit difficult to pin down as it never really gets a solid, identifiable central performance, but it does start to assert itself in the second half of the score as he, Newt, and the delightful jezebel Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson) make their way to the epicenter of the apocalypse; in “Shadwell Breaks In” the prancing rhythmic strings and harpsichords are accompanied by Latin chanting and some action material, while “Thundergun” presents something altogether more heroic. Later, in “Shadwell and Tracy,” his theme undergoes a sort of romantic transformation, combining with the love theme and adopting its angelic chorus and piano orchestrations.

The rest of the score is, basically, a schooling in everything that has always made David Arnold’s music great. There are echoes of everything from the action music of Independence Day and Casino Royale to the lush love themes of Last of the Dogmen and The Stepford Wives, the more contemporary stylings of things like Baby Boy and Changing Lanes, the quirkiness of Sherlock, and so much more. The whole thing is filled with his personal compositional mannerisms – specific instrumental combinations, familiar chord progressions – and all of it is just superb.

Among the other highlights I like are the quintessential Hammer scoring in cues like “Chattering Nuns,” “Three Card Switch,” “Wrong Boy,” and “Paintball,” which use church organs and Omen-style chanting choirs to clearly emphasize the devilish religioso undertones of baby Adam’s birth, but also have a vein of wry humor running through them that speaks to the ineptness of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl. The medieval sound of “Witch,” which uses funereal drums, bagpipes, and a lovely thematic interlude to underscore the fate of the prophet Agnes Nutter, is a score standout. Similarly, the entire ‘Aziraphale and Crowley Through Time’ sequence at the beginning of Episode 3 is musically superb; it begins with a gorgeous violin solo and a haunting choral lament to underscore Jesus’s death in “Crucified,” moves through dark Arthurian textures for “The Black Knight,” presents a perfect Renaissance pastiche to underscore their meetings with Shakespeare in “The Globe,” and ends with a period-appropriate Victorian variation of the main theme in “St. James Park.” Long-time Arnold fans will recognize a throwback to ‘Christian’s Requiem’ from The Young Americans and in the first of those cues.

There are regal brasses, majestic choirs, and magical crescendos to accompany the re-emergence of “Atlantis,” Herrmannesque/Elfmanesque theramins and orchestral dissonances to underscore the arrival of the “Aliens,” and patriotic Americana for when the “Ambassador Arrives.” Arnold does his best Ennio Morricone spaghetti western sound, complete with harmonicas and rattles, in “Ineffable Plan,” and then mischievously arranges his main theme in the style of Nino Rota and The Godfather in “Lawyer With a Box”.

The score ends with a slow, soft version of the main theme for piano and strings in “All’s Well that Ends,” and a sprightly, whimsical combination of the Main Theme and the Friendship Theme in “All Change” which highlights chimes and a hammered dulcimer, before the whole thing concludes with a new version of the classic British wartime ballad “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” performed by Tori Amos. There is, of course, a literal depiction of the song’s famous lyrics with angels actually dining at the Ritz and the titular bird singing in the titular intersection.

If the score for Good Omens has any drawbacks it is more to do with its CD presentation than the actual music; with 88 minutes spread over two discs, it does tend to drag a little bit in its middle section, and could have done with a little judicious pruning to pick out the highlights, avoid repetition and redundancy, and present 50 minutes to an hour of the absolute best bits. Also, the nature of the show is such that the cues themselves tend to be a little on the short side – none of the score tracks exceed three minutes in length, while the shortest (“Warlock”) is just 29 seconds. This makes the album feel a little bitty at times, stopping and starting and never really allowing for much clear thematic development.

These small nitpicks aside, I still found Good Omens to be a tremendously entertaining piece of music. Sherlock notwithstanding, it’s so good to hear new music from David Arnold after what feels like such a long time, and with its plentiful echoes of many of his most beloved film works, this is sure to be received as a timely reminder that 1) he is a truly great composer, and 2) his voice is deeply missed in mainstream cinema.

Buy the Good Omens soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Good Omens Opening Title (2:11)
  • Chattering Nuns (2:47)
  • Three Card Switch (2:11)
  • Warlock (0:29)
  • Adam (1:16)
  • Lullaby (1:00)
  • Hell Hound (1:23)
  • Wrong Boy (2:51)
  • We’re Doomed (0:31)
  • End Titles – The Theme That Got Left in the Car (2:03)
  • Witch (2:18)
  • Newt (0:46)
  • Anathema (1:08)
  • The Them (1:50)
  • Anathema Meets Them (1:49)
  • Paintball (1:04)
  • Anathema Investigates (1:06)
  • Sleeping Adam (1:21)
  • I Should Cocoa (2:16)
  • Crucified (1:57)
  • The Black Knight (1:12)
  • The Globe (0:30)
  • St.James Park (0:56)
  • Holy Water (1:10)
  • Adam and Dog (1:00)
  • We’re Not Killing Anybody (1:29)
  • Atlantis (1:14)
  • Gabriel (0:44)
  • Bad Angel Michael (1:39)
  • Delivery for Pollution (1:46)
  • Message for Mr Death (0:57)
  • Aliens! (1:36)
  • Ambassador Arrives (0:36)
  • Ansaphone (0:37)
  • Adam Ascending (1:09)
  • Shadwell Breaks In (1:16)
  • Bookshops On Fire (1:20)
  • Is That You? (1:52)
  • Four Horsemen (0:32)
  • Thundergun (0:56)
  • Adams Changed (1:01)
  • Horsemen to the Airfield (1:53)
  • On Your Bikes (1:08)
  • Requiem for a Bentley (1:53)
  • The Gathering (0:52)
  • Despatch the Horsemen (2:11)
  • Computers Down (1:00)
  • End of This Story (1:26)
  • Ineffable Plan (1:26)
  • They’ve Told His Father (1:28)
  • Another Place (1:23)
  • Life After Death (1:22)
  • Adams Bedroom (1:22)
  • Restoration (1:04)
  • Newt and Anathema Wake Up (1:35)
  • Hell and Holy Water (2:20)
  • Lawyer With a Box (2:38)
  • Shadwell and Tracy (1:00)
  • Together (1:15)
  • All’s Well that Ends (1:22)
  • All Change (1:21)
  • A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square (written by Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz, performed by Tori Amos) (3:00)

Running Time: 88 minutes 48 seconds

BBC/Silva Screen SILCD-1593 (2019)

Music composed by David Arnold. Conducted by Ben Foster. Orchestrations by Ben Foster. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Album produced by David Arnold.

  1. July 31, 2019 at 4:25 am

    The only real complaint I have about this soundtrack is that they really should have included the full versions of the end titles for each episode, other than “The Theme That Got Left in the Car” that’s already there.

    Otherwise, it’s a really fun listen both as a part of the series and on it own.

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