Titanic. By God, how do I begin? No film score has ever had this much of an impact on the mainstream. Neither the massive John Williams classics like A New Hope or Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor the Hans Zimmer smash hits like Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or The Dark Knight have even come close to selling as many units as Titanic has. And yes, the two major reasons for this are James Cameron's uber-popular film (grossing nearly two billion dollars, a feat repeated only recently by the all-pervading Avatar ) and Cèline Dion's uber-popular, Oscar-winning song, 'My Heart Will Go On'. But it was composer James Horner who collected the statuettes and bucks for this album, and many bucks they were. Enough to give Horner financial security for himself (and his children too, most likely). Certainly enough to elevate him to the very highest echelons of the film music world, giving him leave to both to call upon renowned soloists for future scores (such as singer Charlotte Church for A Beautiful Mind or violinist Joshua Bell for Iris) and get away with a LOT of self-referencing bordering on laziness (Bicentennial Man, Deep Impact, Enemy at the Gates, A Beautiful Mind, Troy).
So Horner and Cameron got filthy rich, and millions of weepy-eyed, Leo DiCaprio-loving teenage girls were left to weep over the supposed masterpiece that is Horner's original score to Titanic. The trouble is...this music simply isn't all that good. Neither is it all that original. It is a solid, New Age romance-drama score with more than a hint of action thrown in for good measure. But Oscar material? The film floated (haha) the score's win, for sure.
The score starts off with 'Never an Absolution', and it starts out awfully. I mean, no offense meant towards Ireland, but Horner's beloved Uillean pipe has to be one of the most irritating instruments out there. It's nasal, it's penetrating and here, it's mixed so close to the forefront that I had to turn the volume down. Thankfully, the thing stops its caterwauling after a minute or so, moving into more tranquil, melancholic music led by the doubly soothing tones of Norwegian vocalist Sissel Kyrkjebø and a horn, accompanied by deep, resounding plucked tones. It's pleasant, harmonic stuff that should make Horner fans happy, but I can't help checking the front of the CD case to check and see whether I had accidentally bought Braveheart 2 rather than Titanic.
So - themes! I've got to admit, Horner has composed quite a few here, and he uses them in intelligent ways. While I was wincing and covering my ears, the Uillean pipe in 'Never an Absolution' was actually performing part of one of the film's two major identities, the theme for the doomed ship itself. The far more pleasant Sissel material, of course, was rendering the all-pervading love theme, and I have to admit that in itself this is one of the best themes Horner's ever composed. If it was given the same lush, romantic, John Barry-esque treatment that his material for Legends of the Fall received, it would stand as one of my absolute favorite Horner themes. But Cameron specifically didn't want a lush, romantic period score. He wanted a New Age effort that he felt would more effectively touch his target audience of hopelessly sappy teenage girls. Horner gave him just that, and the results were spectacularly successful. But I just don't like it one bit. Though I do have to admire the very subtle, difficult-to-notice doubling of the chorus of 'My Heart Will Go On' over the top of the main melody by some sort of distant echoing synth choir (more on that later...)
The second cue introduces a tingling, partially synthetic motif that represents the elder incarnation of the Rose (Kate Winslet) character. It's a pleasant, rambling idea that was extended in Horner's The New World eight years later. But otherwise it's a bit of a throwaway track. A bump on the road on the way to...
'Southampton'. Really, Horner? The highest grossing film of ALL TIME (until Avatar, and that only grossed more because of the extra bucks people were shelling for the 3D gimmick), and you couldn't afford a REAL CHOIR??? Seriously! My dated Yamaha keyboard from the early 90s produces more convincing 'Choir Aahs' than Horner's chorus in this awful, sickly-sweet third track! Not to mention the fact that Horner rips off his own electronic pulsing effect from Apollo 13, AND pretty much directly lifts Enya's Book of Days to boot for the first part of the aforementioned ship's theme. This track represents everything, no EVERYTHING that is wrong about James Horner. Irritating orchestrations and plagiarism issues. Skip this annoying bump in the road...
...and go to 'Rose'. This is one of those tracks that will have the teenagers weeping. It's basically a drum- and Cèline-Dion-less version of 'My Heart Will Go On', a souped-up piece of New Age schmaltz that shamelessly tugs at every single heartstring Horner manages to grasp. He doesn't exactly manage to grasp mine - that bleep! synth choir and electronics are still there, albeit thankfully toned down a bit to let the much more graceful tones of Sissel and an admittedly beautiful flute solo take the forefront to perform the, yes, admittedly beautiful love theme.
...OH, YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, JAMES!!! I...look, if you, like me, hated 'Southampton', don't even bother listening to 'Leaving Port' or 'Take Her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch'. Both are practically IDENTICAL in construct and, unfortunately, orchestration. Synths and fake choirs. There's even some attempt to fake low, male choral chanting in 'Leaving Port.' Was Horner going for a The Lion King effect? If so, he failed on an epic scale. It just doesn't work. Skip this pale Enya imitation...
...and dive (more bad sinking jokes) into to the score's second act. 'Hard to Starboard', despite an inauspicious beginning that sounds just like 'Rose', soon moves into action territory after a minute or so, with a tapping piano-wire noise that, though Horner has used it before, works well to create a nervous atmosphere. There's a lesser motif consisting of two brass chords - representing danger and death - that works equally well, despite it coming from Braveheart (AARGH, Horner...). Action music has never been one of Horner's strong fields in my opinion, but this material is actually decently exciting, if a bit unstructured. It's closest cousing would be the Apollo 13 action. But wouldn't it be nice, just once, for me to write a paragraph about Horner's music that didn't end in me pointing out a bit of music that references an earlier work? In this case, there's a suspenseful, timpani-pounding bass motif straight out of Jerry Goldsmith's Capricorn One at about 3:05. Oh, while we're at it, there's a little repeating trumpet call towards the end of this cue that originates from Horner's own Jumanji.
I mean...COME ON, FOLKS!!! This isn't even one of Horner's more blatant scores, and STILL there's just so much self- and other-people-referencing to point out.
Let's go on to 'Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave', which might just be my favorite cue, though considering how much I dislike this score that's a case of damning with faint praise. It provides the most dramatic statement of the love theme at 1:38, complete with echoing Chariots of Fire-type synth percussion. The little segment of action music that follows is also a pleasant surprise, being much less random and flailing than Horner's usual fare.
The next pair of action cues ('The Sinking' and 'Death of Titanic') deal with the disastrous sinking of the ship. Having, of course, seen the movie (who hasn't?), I can't honestly remember a huge amount of music beneath these scenes, but on the album Horner provides over thirteen minutes of orchestral mayhem into which he rather intelligently integrates the synth choir, battling with the orchestra in duelling segments. Sometimes, the love theme makes an appearance, but is usually cleverly twisted into dissonance by Horner to foreshadow the tragic end this romance is fated to have. Unfortunately, a theme sounding SUSPICIOUSLY like John Williams' Schindler's List enters at 6:15 into 'Death of Titanic' (a theme Horner had already ripped off for Apollo 13 and would again for Enemy at the Gates) By the end of the 'Death of Titanic' cue, though, the synth choir has evolved into a brilliant musical representation of the thousand-plus victims of the Titanic sinking - a multitude of voices crying out in fear and pain, twisted together with the music to provide one last massive, dissonant crescendo before the ship sinks...
...into the murk of the album's final act. The cue 'A Promise Kept' is a numbingly downbeat, funereal cue that might just drive you over the edge if you're hedging suicidal thoughts...It's depressing to the max, with aching little hints of Sissel's voice and the love theme never breaking free of the weighty sadness - the closest it comes is 3:40. And it's, well, beautiful. At the end, there's a little swelling-up of strings as Rose is rescued from the icy sea (leaving poor Leo DiCaprio to his blue and watery death...sniff).
'A Life So Changed' is basically a recap of 'Never an Absolution', minus the Uillean pipe (thank God!). After the powerfully sad previous cue, hearing the gentle love theme in full is a real treat. 'An Ocean of Memories' is a lovely extended version of the CD's second track ('Distant Memories') and therefore renders the first one a bit useless. It rambles a little, but that's one of the more pleasant features of Horner's music - it's more of a stream of consciousness than a structured, 'limited' piece of music, and features some nice solos for trumpet among others.
And then, after the treacly Cèline Dion ballad (with truly despicable, saccharine lyrics by Horner's usual collaborator Will Jennings), we get 'Hymn to the Sea', a bit of an unnecessary piece that does little but recapitulate material from 'A Life So Changed' and 'Distant Memories' (with the Uillean pipe...).
So, let's sum up. I'd like to first of all state that I'm not just giving this score such a curmudgeonly rating because I'm trying to be 'different' from the rest of the world. James Horner and James Cameron probably knew when they made the decisions about this score that it would be polarizing. They took a huge gamble by not creating a sweeping, romantic score, and instead choosing an atypical New Age approach that, by rights, shouldn't work in a movie set a century ago. But this score works absolute wonders in the film - even I have to admit it. The score takes otherwise merely solid acting from DiCaprio and Winslet and transforms their onscreen romance into a powerhouse of emotion.
Unfortunately, this score simply doesn't work well on album - not in its first act, anyway, which is where the most treacly synth-choral New Age music is presented. The action music is entertaining by Horner's rather low standards, and there are plenty of absolutely beautiful standalone moments, especially in the score's third act, mostly courtesy of Horner's great love theme and Sissel's beautiful vocals. But this material isn't any better than what Horner's already given us - with orchestrations that are actually bearable - in Glory, Legends of the Fall or Braveheart, and here (unlike in those scores, with the possible exception of the bad action cues in Braveheart ) there are plenty of awful cues to sift through in order to reach the good stuff. The only bits you really need, in my most humbly cynical opinion, are the six cues between 'Hard to Starboard' and 'A Life So Changed'. Of course, if you are one of those billion or so fangirls in love with the film, or DiCaprio, you'll want every last manipulative tear-jerking minute of it.
All in all, this score is HIGHLY overrated. If you buy it with high expectations (as I did - it was my first Horner score and soured me towards the man for a long, long time), you may be disappointed. And let's face it, enough people have bought this commercial juggernaut anyway without you contributing your two cents as well.