Home > Reviews > WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING – Mychael Danna


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the most successful and popular novels of the last five years. Written by Delia Owens and set in the marshes of North Carolina in the 1950s, it tells the story of Kya, who grows up in the backwoods in isolation following the death of her parents, and is shunned by the local community for being illiterate and unkempt; only the son of a local pastor, Tate, shows her kindness, and helps teach her to read. However, several years later, Kya’s world is turned upside down when she is arrested as the prime suspect in the murder of Chase, the high school quarterback with whom she had been in a loose relationship, and must again face the prejudices of the locals in order to clear her name. This new film based on the book is directed by Olivia Newman and stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya, with support from Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, and David Strathairn.

The score for Where the Crawdads Sing is by the Oscar-winning Canadian composer Mychael Danna. One of the things that Danna has always been great at throughout his career has been capturing the soul of a physical place through authentic regional music, whether it be historical Armenia in Ararat, Victorian England in Vanity Fair and Being Julia, or the Indian subcontinent in any number of films – take your pick from Life of Pi, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Monsoon Wedding, and several others. Where the Crawdads Sing is another score very much like that, although here the sound is rooted in the American folk music of the Appalachians. Danna has sort of explored this sound before, in scores like Ride With the Devil, but whereas that score also contained a fair amount of rousing and full-throated orchestral action, Where the Crawdads Sing is subtler, quieter, and takes its time to weave an evocative spell.

The score features a standard symphony orchestra augmented by specialty instruments such as banjo, fiddle, and autoharp, but perhaps the most unique sounds in the score are not made by ‘instruments’ at all. One of the major plot points in the story derives from the fact that Kya is a naturalist, and spends much of her time collecting, drawing, and studying the life of the marsh where she grows up, especially shells. To capture this element of the story Danna collaborated with musician Don Chilton, who specializes in making music with various sea and conch shells which, when blown, have an ethereal, ghostly sound. Clinton’s haunting tones can be heard throughout the score, but are especially prominent in cues such as the opening “Out Yonder Where the Crawdads Sing,” and then later in the likes of “The Marsh Girl,” “A Feather From Tate,” “Snow Geese,” and “View from the Fire Tower”.

The score is not one to go in for strongly recognizable themes, but what it lacks in this aspect it more than makes up for in texture and atmosphere. This is a score that drips in a moody southern gothic style, and it paints a picture of the Carolina swamps as a place that is both beautiful but dangerous, isolated and lonely, but also very much home for someone like Kya. A review of the movie on Roger Ebert’s website describes the film as one where “cicadas buzz, the moss drips, and the sunset casts a golden shimmer on the water every single evening,” and Danna’s music is the perfect accompaniment of this rich, vivid visual.

There is a recurring theme for Kya – warmly nostalgic banjos and fiddles – that appears in cues like “They Called Me Kya,” the more upbeat “Mussels for Jumpin’,” the wryly playful “Clothes from Miss Mabel,” and the almost humorous “With Royalties to Follow,” among others. These are the moments that remind me the most of Ride With the Devil, and anyone who knows how much I love that score will know that that’s a very good thing.

Elements of Kya’s theme later informs the cues that underscore the romantic relationships between Kya and Tate, and then Kya and Chase, giving them a quality that is innocent, a little naïve, and perhaps a little magical. I love how Kya’s textures gently combine with the blown shells in the aforementioned “A Feather from Tate,” and then later in “Am I Your Girlfriend Now?” and especially “It Was Always Tate” the overall tone Danna adopts is just lovely.

Naturally, parts of the score also deal with the more serious and at times quite tragic elements of Kya’s life. Cues like “A Swamp Knows All About Death” have both an element of menace and a sense of urgency to them, especially when Danna augments his orchestra with sometimes quite harsh electronic textures. Elsewhere, “You’re Never Going to Come Back” features a desperately broken version of Kya’s theme that speaks to her solitude. “The Fourth of July” contrasts elegant pianos with ominous tremolo strings. The drama inherent in “Red Wool Fibers” is enhanced by the increased focus on traditional orchestral textures, especially strings, piano, and woodwinds.

“I Just Wanna Talk” and the pivotal “We the Jury” combine to form the dramatic apex of the dark side of the story, in which Danna takes all the elements of the score – country instruments, subtle orchestrations, electronics, shells, Kya’s theme – and makes them feel important, emotionally heightened, and then eventually imbued with a sense of relief and resolution. “I Am Every Shell Washed Upon the Shore” and “Teach You to Read“ combine to form the score’s cathartic climax, and contain the most powerful orchestral arrangements, the most expressive renditions of Kya’s theme, and as a result of them being two of the longest cues have time to really develop such that, by the end, they deliver quite an emotional punch. Some of Danna’s writing here very occasionally reminds me of James Horner’s Field of Dreams, which again can only be a good thing.

The final element to the soundtrack is an original song, “Carolina,” which was written and performed by country-pop superstar Taylor Swift. However, this is not one of her usual chart topping efforts – instead this is a mournful, soulful piece that could almost described be as a country-flavored murder ballad. Swift was inspired after reading the book and seeing the film’s promotional trailer; she contacted producer Reese Witherspoon and director Olivia Newman, offered to write a song for them, and presented the finished thing before the film had even gone into production. It’s a superb piece of traditional Americana, stripped down and carried by little more than a guitar, a banjo, and Swift’s unexpectedly dreamy voice, and has poetic lyrics that directly reference elements of the story. I really like it, and it’s absolutely going to be in contention for the Best Song Oscar next year.

I personally found Where the Crawdads Sing to be a mesmerizing soundscape, but I can definitely see how some may find the score to be something of a chore, because two of its biggest defining traits are subtlety and understatement. The lack of strong thematic content beyond the main theme for Kya may result in some people dismissing it out of hand as being nothing but texture. Furthermore, an affinity for prominent country textures led by fiddles and banjos is also a requirement because the score is awash in them from start to finish, and if you don’t have that I can see how the sound may grate. It may be that the score just happened to catch me in with the right mood, but whatever the case may be, Where the Crawdads Sing hit me right in the sweet spot, providing a slightly melancholy but wholly beautiful evocation of a unique place, and a unique girl at the center of a very traumatic story.

Buy the Where the Crawdads Sing soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Carolina (written and performed by Taylor Swift) (4:24)
  • Out Yonder Where the Crawdads Sing (2:34)
  • A Swamp Knows All About Death (2:55)
  • They Called Me Kya (1:28)
  • The Marsh Girl (1:08)
  • Mussels for Jumpin’ (1:54)
  • A Feather from Tate (2:07)
  • Am I Your Girlfriend Now? (2:12)
  • Snow Geese (2:18)
  • Another Season Passed (0:47)
  • You’re Never Going to Come Back (1:13)
  • The Fourth of July (1:51)
  • View from the Fire Tower (1:04)
  • Clothes from Miss Mabel (1:38)
  • Chase Andrews (1:37)
  • Red Wool Fibers (1:24)
  • I Just Wanna Talk (1:34)
  • With Royalties to Follow (0:56)
  • We the Jury (2:15)
  • It Was Always Tate (2:41)
  • I Am Every Shell Washed Upon the Shore (4:31)
  • Teach You to Read (2:43)

Running Time: 45 minutes 13 seconds

Mercury Classics (2022)

Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted by Nicholas Dodd. Orchestrations by Nicholas Dodd. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Kevin Crehan and Erich Strattman. Album produced by Mychael Danna.

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  1. January 28, 2023 at 10:00 am

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