To sum up, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a decent listening experience at best, and an obnoxious one at worst, though it mostly failed as a film score. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest introduced a few leitmotifs, as befits a franchise this size, and was a definite, if rather sporadic, improvement. Zimmer had allowed moments of brilliance to shine through, and I had the distinct feeling he had something major, some kind of Big Plan, in mind for this final Pirates flick.
But NOBODY could have anticipated that his score to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End would not only give the franchise more thematic depth than heard in any Zimmer score to date, but also swell into a magnificent and unexpected culmination of the franchise's music on an epic scale that rivals and surpasses even Gladiator and King Arthur.
And yet this is exactly what Zimmer has done, because this is among, if not ABOVE, his absolute best scores in terms of composing intelligence - and it is most certainly an extremely satisfying listening experience.
In terms of new themes, Zimmer comes up with quite a few, and two of these themes are quite complex and lengthy. The first is introduced at the outset, 'Hoist the Colours,' which is, surprisingly, a song sung by a boy soloist. It has both verse and chorus sections, which gives it a lot of versatility that allows it to be employed in several guises.
The second track, 'Singapore', opens with an Asian-flavored subtheme on erhu, before segueing into another new theme, a full identity for Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company. As befits this world-confining organization, the theme is rhythmically quite strict, accompanied by an ostinato hinted at in PotC 2. This theme and the Asian elements weave in and out of each other with a seeming ease that was lacking from the two previous installments, and for good measure, Jack's entrance cue makes its obligatory appearance at the end of the cue, accompanied by full choir that gives it the substance it was so badly lacking in the synth-heavy first score.
But its the third track, 'At Wit's End', that really shows what an epic sea voyage this score is really going to be, for its here that Will and Elizabeth's Love Theme (A.K.A., in Zimmer's own words, 'a theme for the entire movie') is introduced - or parts of it, for this is also a complex identity with no less than three sections (referred to as A, B and C here). The A section is first performed on a solo horn - Zimmer's favorite instrument, and with good reason, for its is beautiful on its own and epic en masse. Another very subtle theme - not apparent on CD, but noticeable, if you pay good attention, in the movie - is introduced for the idea of World's End. It's performed with beauty by a wordless choir and solo soprano here, evoking memories of The Da Vinci Code. The B section is then given an epic statement, before segueing into Davy Jones' music-box theme from PotC 2. But Zimmer has this run, seamlessly, into the A love theme again, still on music box. The cue ends with a dramatic full statement of Jones' theme, before ending with some truly exciting action music in which the love themes and that for World's End weave in and out of each other.
'Multiple Jacks' is one of the quirkiest cues of Zimmer's career, a very electronic piece that offers some extremely off-kilter statements of Jack's theme from PotC 2 - even more off-kilter than it was there - accompanied by, of all things, a mouth harp. There's some excellent percussive work here, too.
'Up is Down' - ah, where to begin? The best thing about this piece is that even the most conservative of film music collectors have to agree that Zimmer has managed to insert some swash and buckle here, in the form of a Celtig jig-inspired, fiddle-performed ostinato that accompanies the A and B love themes in and out of a brilliant and rousing action piece, ending again in the World's End theme.
'I See Dead People in Boats' is a quieter piece, offering the A love theme on solo oboe (who's keeping track of all the fresh new instruments and sounds Zimmer is introducing here?) before moving into a more atmospheric cue that hints at Davy Jones' theme. It ends with some action music in the vein of 'At Wit's End', with a first hint at the yearning C love theme.
'The Brethren Court' offers another statement of the off-kilter Jack's Theme, before reprising the 'Hoist the Colours' first on solo trumpet (that's another new instrument!) and choir, then over the off-kilter waltz rhythm on a hammered dulcimer (and another!). This theme, representing the overall idea of piracy, here shows both the noble and quirky sides of the Court.
'Parlay' - well, Zimmer has repeatedly stated that he is an admirer of Ennio Morricone, and boy does he show it here. The A love theme is played on a wailing electric guitar (yet another solo instrument, notably performed by director Gore Verbinski) over the ostinato of the Cutler Beckett theme. Yes, it sounds like 'Man with a Harmonica' from Once Upon a Time in the West, but that was the point. And there's no denying it's an extremely cool accent in the film and very enjoyable on album. 'Calypso' is in the vein of The Da Vinci Code, with some dramatic choral crescendos and a few ethereal statements of Tia Dalma's elusive theme.
'What Shall We Die For?' is, of all things, is an honest-to-God power anthem very much in the vein of Crimson Tide or The Rock, though here it's accompanied by a full choir singing the Hoist the Colours theme. It's perfect music to backdrop an inspiring battle speech - which, of course, is exactly what it does, though music aside, that was a wince-inducing moment in the film (Keira Knightley…looks good, acts terribly.)
'I Don't Think Now's the Best Time' is the biggest action piece of the album. Of the franchise, for that matter - well, to be perfectly frank, it's absolutely the most massive, epic, complex, intelligent, rousing, brilliant, playful, swashbuckling, bombastic and exciting action piece of Zimmer's entire career – equal to King Arthur’s “Budget Meeting”. Clocking in at just under eleven minutes, there are statements of no less than TEN themes (Beckett's, Jones', Sparrow's, an action theme from PotC 2, the Brethren’s (chorus and verse form), World's End, Love Themes A and C, He's a Pirate and an action theme from PotC 1) throughout, which weave in and out of each other with perfect ease, all accompanied by a trademark-Zimmer chopping string ostinato line. The best section of this piece - also the best section of Zimmer's career, in my opinion - provides the backdrop for the scene in which Will and Elizabeth marry amidst the tumultuous maelstrom battle. Zimmer allows two or three notes of Love Theme A to play while the two are talking, interrupting the theme just as the onscreen villains do by short bits of action music. The most triumphant section of He's a Pirate gets an epic statement that actually makes it sound like it never knew Gladiator (plays whenever Barbossa appears, saying 'I'm a little busy at the moment' (that too could have been a track title?)). These few minutes are the single most intelligent moment of Zimmer's career that I have heard in my lifetime, and should silence the many Media Ventures haters once and for all. Who could hate a composer this gifted, one who manages to follow a film's action millisecond by millisecond without falling into the dreaded trap of Mickey-Mousing? If you're a Zimmer action fan, this piece is a must-have.
After this monumental climax, easily rivaling the thematic density of The Lord of the Rings, one would only expect the album to fizzle out. It does nothing of the sort - 'One Day' offers a powerful statement of the Medallion Calls theme from PotC 1, before going through a lengthy buildup of all three love themes in succession - A on horn over a moving string line, B slowly building up until it explodes into a soaring strings statement of C that truly invokes the wide expanses of the open seas. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the famous father of 'soaring' music for the seas, who would have turned in his grave at hearing PotC 1, would be proud beyond words at hearing this. He has heard it, of course – “One Day” is probably the entrance music to Heaven.
'Drink Up Me Hearties' is similar in structure to 'One Day', offering some buildup into the obligatory statement of He's a Pirate at the beginning of the end credits. Here, the amount of improvement Zimmer has done with the franchise becomes apparent, for He's a Pirate, without a doubt the strongest track on PotC 1, pales into utter insignificance when compared to what follows - another ABC of love themes, but upbeat this time, accompanied as it is by the fiddle ostinato from Up is Down, shifting notes seamlessly to fit the chord progression and yet never losing its identity. This is brilliant, really it is. This is what got me really hooked on Zimmer - sitting in the movie theatre after everybody had left, with a broad, broad grin on my face while the best music I have ever heard in my life blasts out at me in surround sound. Thank you, Hans Zimmer.
Speaking of which - it's a shame, really, that the entire end credits suite isn't included on the album, for it is in itself a magnificent piece. After the ABC of love themes, Zimmer actually wrote a completely original five-minute suite of the Hoist the Colours theme, and employs the same thematic brilliance here as he did in 'I Don't Think Now's the Best Time'. Since Hoist the Colours and He's a Pirate have similar chord progressions - what does he do? He combines the two, and they sound like they were made for each other. And there are other notable moments of the score I noticed in the film (such as the powerful new theme that plays while Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth escape the Flying Dutchman using a parachute) that also didn’t make the album. But a 3-CD release wouldn’t have satisfied me here.
Another of the many, many ways At World’s End surpasses its two predecessors is in terms of recording quality and orchestral fullness. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl had an almost woefully bad, abrasive mix, and employed far too many obvious synthetic accents in the brass and percussion sections especially. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a vast improvement, with a far deeper percussion section and, wherever electronics were used, it was obvious enough for me to think it was on purpose (especially in “The Kraken”). At World’s End is even better – in fact, I think it’s the closest Hans Zimmer has ever gotten to a purely orchestral score. The only clearly electronic moments appear in “Multiple Jacks”, “The Brethren Court”, and, of course, for the Ennio Morricone homage in “Parlay”. The rest of the album employs the same wet, deep mix that made King Arthur such an enjoyable score. Also, the choir, while used sporadically in Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest, is expanded to a much fuller role here, again reminding of the best moments in King Arthur (“Woad to Ruin”, “Budget Meeting”)
All right, it’s fairly obvious that I love this score, so I will stop spewing complimentary adjectives and wrap up. This CD has everything a film score needs – enjoyable, blood-pumping action music, more tender moments, wacky and weird bits and, most importantly, a thematic intelligence and density that rivals (though Zimmer haters will groan at this) Howard Shore and his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. Even the most grudging, conservative film music listeners will admit that this is top-quality Zimmer, taking only the best of his earlier composing techniques and combining it with the intelligent ease of a true veteran. I have found myself asking where THIS version of Hans Zimmer has been hiding all these years. I can only hope that, with two more third-entry sequels presumably looming on the horizon (Dan Brown’s new Langdon novel, “The Lost Symbol”, and the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot trilogy), Zimmer will return to this perfect combination of thematic brilliance and purely enjoyable music.
In three words: Props, Hans. Props.
(P.S. A few extra suites have been released in the box set, Pirates of the Caribbean: Soundtrack Treasures Collection. Give it a look, Zimmerites, because that CD contains a lot of the missing material from At World’s End.)