Twin Peaks: Music and the Corruption of Innocence

Feature by Alexander Smail | 14 Jul 2017

At the halfway point of the latest series of Twin Peaks, we take a closer look at the pivotal role of music in the cult TV show

Spoiler alert: This feature contains plot details from the current series of Twin Peaks

In 1991, Twin Peaks (in)famously ended with its protagonist – pure-hearted FBI agent Dale Cooper – corrupted and possessed by the murderous spirit BOB. 26 years on in the revival series, we're seeing the damage he’s done since. For better or worse (better), the Twin Peaks of cherry pie and damn fine coffee is dead, a victim to the same shadow that consumed its boy scout-turned-murderer hero. Evil is no longer hidden within secrets and diaries; it’s a potent force that walks among us with impunity.

Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy, spectacular score from the original series has no place in this cold, violent portrait of Twin Peaks, and for much of the season it’s been noticeably absent. In fact, the first few episodes are barely scored by music at all. Rather, ambient droning and whooshing soundtrack much of the drama. Tonally, it makes sense. There are no longer illusory scenes of girls dancing in diners, or happy endings for young love, to underline. It’s telling that one of the few motifs from his work that has returned are the eerie synths, which when played over footage of trees shivering in the wind still evoke an overwhelming sense of dread.

This transformation allows Lynch to pump some fresh blood into the music of Twin Peaks. For as haunting as the original score was, it was pretty damn homogenous in the context of the show. Many songs were only played once or twice throughout the whole run, while haunting standout Laura Palmer’s Theme was so prevalent by the end of the series that it had been pretty much drained of any capacity to provoke an emotional response, with the once-evocative piece being reduced to soundtracking tedious soap opera storylines and nothing characters nobody gave a shit about.

No longer relying on Badalamenti’s score alone to evoke emotion, Lynch draws from a large pool of musicians to highlight the encroaching darkness in the new series, from the mournful folk of Sharon Van Etten and aggressive industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails to the sparse and unsettling electronic compositions of Hudson Mohawke – yeah, really. Some might see it as an overcorrection; how can you present a singular vision when you’re bringing in bands from across the musical spectrum? The thing is, though, the new Twin Peaks isn’t singular. It’s a messy clash of tones and narratives, far moreso than the original.

Even the brief moments of respite have a subtle shadow lurking beneath. The lush synthpop of Chromatics’ Shadow conjures warm nostalgia when performed live by the band at the end of the two-part premiere, taking us right back to the safety of 1990. The shimmering synths on the chorus and ethereal voice of lead singer Ruth Radelet recall Julee Cruise’s melancholic The Nightingale, now synonymous with the original series. Looking at the lyrics, though, the track is more foreboding than its gleaming instrumentation lets on. 'Shadow, take me down with you / For the last time' Radelet sings over piercing strings, bringing to mind the heartbreaking destruction of Laura Palmer.

Similarly, Part 7 (Lynch has been explicit about not calling them episodes) closes with the simple and innocuous scene of the Double R Diner, scored by the sentimental steel guitar of 50s surf-rock classic Sleep Walk, while the everyday chatter and commotion of the restaurant plays out beneath the credits. Listen closely enough, however, and the ominous droning of Windom Earle’s Motif, a creepy arrangement from the original show, plays underneath, seeping through the simple joy of Santo & Johnny’s laid-back composition. The eerie strings hide in plain sight, and once heard it’s hard to shake the track’s horror.

As the season has progressed and storylines are starting to converge in the titular town, Lynch has slowly and purposefully began to more explicitly reintroduce elements of Badalamenti’s iconic score, suggesting that by the series’ end we’ll perhaps see a happy ending after all. Laura Palmer’s Theme has been played only at carefully selected moments of thematic resonance. When Bobby Briggs sees his ex-girlfriend Laura Palmer’s yearbook photo for the first time in decades, the iconic piano keys ascend to the now-familiar emotional crescendo of the song, and the affecting melody resonates as much now as it ever did. For a brief moment, innocence is uncorrupted.

A slightly more tangible conflict is between that of Dale Cooper and his evil doppelgänger, Mr. C., both portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan. The former has only just returned to our world after being trapped in an alternative dimension for 25 years, while the latter’s screen time has comprised primarily of torturing those around him, emotionally and physically. The two have yet to share a scene, but very clearly represent the best and worst of human nature, and their scenes are scored by music that captures these diametrically conflicting worldviews. At the halfway point, it’s painfully clear which is the dominant force.

The Dale Cooper of 2017 is a deceptively tragic figure. Currently stumbling around Nevada in a catatonic stupor, his 25 years away from this plane of existence have left him a hollow husk of his former self, unable to recall even his name. Everybody around him believes him to be Dougie Jones, a decoy manufactured by Mr. C and BOB as a means to avoid returning to the Black Lodge – the home of all the malevolent spirits that haunt Twin Peaks (those of you who don’t watch the show, rest assured you’re about as clued up as the rest of us).

Johnny Jewel’s poignant instrumental Windswept is so appropriate a theme for this born-again Cooper, an uncanny blend of unearthly and wistful, that it’s hard to imagine Lynch didn’t commission the song personally. The lachrymose saxophone that punctures the opening, and bleeds right through soft strings and a subdued drumbeat to the end of the track, is otherworldly, yet grounded by a deeply melancholic melody. Beneath the slapstick of MacLachlan fumbling around dazed and confused, there is real pathos to the character; his 25 years trapped have meant he lost his chance to get married and start a family – an intention the character confessed back in 1991.

Mr. C., meanwhile, is a figure of menace and chaos, of goodness corrupted. Just as Lynch likes to explore the dark underbelly of suburban life – both in Twin Peaks and in films such as Blue Velvet – the director distorts innocuous, even beautiful, music when scoring scenes with Mr. C., to the point where it’s unrecognisable. American Women by Tennessean duo Muddy Magnolias is an uninspired pop-rock jam, more at home in an Urban Outfitters than surrealist horror, yet it’s the perfect song to soundtrack the character’s introduction in Part 1. Namely because Lynch chops and screws with it to the point where the commanding vocals of the original sound warbled – almost satanic – whilst the energetic drumbeat has been tempered to sound like gunshots.

Similarly, in Part 8 – an hour-long nightmare which only Lynch’s beautifully twisted mind could have concocted – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is warped into something truly terrifying. After being shot point blank by one of his thugs, Mr. C. lies motionless on the ground as a gathering of charcoal-covered ‘woodsmen’ revive him underneath dissonant bursts of light. Only Beethoven’s distorted piece, and the vague sounds of warbled screaming, soundtrack the distressing scene of spirits dancing around the corpse, smearing blood over the doppelgänger’s face. The famously solemn melody is non-existent; it’s just an unnerving collection of discordant tones. Lynch’s flair for using sound to invoke the dread of the unconscious mind is unbridled.

Even something as innocuous as a simple hip-hop beat can be sinister in Lynch’s world. Some of the most disturbing and gory scenes, involving a dwarf hitman (Ike the Spike) with an ice pick, have been scored by Hamburg collective Blunted Beatz’s I Am. The action onscreen is horrifying, but the track’s buoyant vocal sample and propulsive drumbeat are almost joyful, imbuing the scene's air of dark comedy. That’s Lynch’s all over. It would be easy to saturate these scenes with brooding synths or tense strings, but that’s almost too easy. Transforming a bouncy hip-hop beat into something eerie and unsettling? Now that’s interesting. He doesn’t even need to alter its pitch or texture to turn it into something legitimately frightening.

Music hasn’t lost its importance, or impact, in the new Twin Peaks. It’s just been debased like everything else. Before, jazzy and dreamy compositions underscored the (mostly) faraway tone of the original show. With the 2017 continuation, the erratic and unsettling soundtrack echoes the spectral corruption that has engulfed the titular town and beyond. 26 years on from the original show, David Lynch’s unique gift for capturing our deepest fears onscreen, or unearthing malevolence in the tedium of everyday life, has remained untouched. Now, the darkness is spreading, festering in the music that was once so dreamy.

Twin Peaks is currently airing on Sky Atlantic