What’s going on lately with the music cues? Between The Batman putting “Something in the Way” back on the charts, the Moon Knight trailer with its excellent remix of “Day ‘n’ Night,” the Ms. Marvel trailer making “Blinding Lights” almost family-friendly, and every single song used in What We Do in the Shadows, the last few months have been really fun for people who love a well-deployed, fine, needledrop.
(I’m not a fan of this term, I don’t know why everyone’s suddenly decided to use it, but whatever. One can only fight so many tides, and I have more pressing battles than this.) My favorite music of the year, however, can be found in Our Flag Means Death. And because I like to think way too hard about popular culture, and these last few weeks of watching this show have been the most fun I’ve had in ages, I reckon what makes me happy is… a ranking list.
Set sail with me, won’t you? But be warned: Here be spoilers for all of season one.
I’m leaving almost all of the classical cues off the list, simply because these lists can get unwieldy fast, and if I start trying to pull out every classical strain that plays under a flashback we’ll be here until season two is announced.
I mean, unless they want to go ahead and do that… now?
…it was worth a shot.
I’m ranking here by how well I thought each song played off the action in the show and/or how much it made me unexpectedly tear up when I’d just been laughing my guts up. Let’s remember that all of these songs are winners! All lists are subjective! Life itself, when you come right down to it, is pretty subjective! And feel free to tell me why your fave should have been higher.
10) Messa da Requiem: II. Dies irae: Dies irae by Verdi, deployed in “A Damned Man”
What’s this? Am I breaking my own rule with the first entry? Of course! This is a list about pirates!
And I mean, come on, it’s Dies Irae (that’s Ecclesiastical Latin for “Day of Wrath” in case you run into a Spanish ship), it’s part of a Requiem Mass, it’s fucking sweet. A little on the nose, perhaps, for the slow tilt up to Blackbeard’s flag, but in the context of the show it’s a a great way to announce that the man is a terrifying badass, only to undercut that foreshadowing with the actual heart-eyes relationship that ensues.
9) “Cobra” by Bailey’s Nervous Cats, deployed in “This is Happening”
This one plays under the alliance between Spanish Jackie, Izzy, and Badminton. After a very sweet episode (Ed and Stede’s first date! They’re co-captains now! Olu offers to be Jim’s family! AAAH!) we’re suddenly watching people plot against our perfect couples, and, maybe it’s just me, but putting a (fun, weird, late-50s) song under the dramatic villain moment just didn’t hit me as hard as some of the others on the list.
8) “Empty Boat” by Caetano Veloso, deployed in “Discomfort in a Married State”
“Empty Boat” kicks in right after Ed has either a) lied to Izzy to appease him or b) sold Stede out to maintain status quo before instantly regretting it.
It’s a plaintive quiet song that is also impossibly cool, thus perfectly underscoring Ed’s unsettled nature. It’s also a fun contrast with the calm of Stede watching the sun come up while he eats marmalade, like the human fucking Paddington he is. But it’s a little rushed, as transitions go, and we don’t know Ed well enough at this point to have the emotional kick some of the other songs have.
7) “Il Triello” by Ennio Morricone, deployed in “We Gull Way Back”
Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly is obviously a great way to soundtrack a three-way standoff, but in this instance it gets a special kick from that standoff being between a drunken pirate with a whip, the furious, grieving widow of the seagull he murdered, and a naked Scotsman casting hexes from atop a unicorn figurehead.
6) “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, deployed in “Act of Grace”
With Lou Reed’s classic (previously used to stellar effect in Trainspotting, whose co-star Ewen “Spud” Bremner is now Mr. Buttons on OFMD), Ed rows into the perfect bi-lighting sunrise of what was supposed to be his new life, alone.
“You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good.”
You know, at this point, why doesn’t the show just literally stab me. Enough with all this metaphorical shit.
Extra points for timing “You’re going to reap just what you sow” to Stede walking in on Mary’s widow party.
5) “High On a Rocky Ledge” by Moondog, deployed in “Pilot”
A beautiful plaintive song by the iconoclastic musician, inventor, and Thor-enthusiast Moondog. The song’s lyrics tell of a person who will make any sacrifice to be with their love, including, ummm, leaping off a cliff in order to be reborn as a flower with her… also as a flower. Using this song to close out the pilot lays the foundation for the rest of the season. We’re post battle. Stede and his crew have defended their ship from an onslaught of British Naval officers—not a fight they should have survived, let alone won. And yet Stede, overcome with grief over his manslaughter of Badminton, and wracked with guilt at abandoning Mary and the kids, stares into the sunset not with a sense of triumph, but weeping. But like the song’s narrator, he accepts his rebirth. He tells himself his family is here now, and the show cuts from him reading Pinocchio to his crew, to Jim removing their disguise, to, finally, all four flags being run up the mast. Rather than make his new family compete for his approval, he accepts all of their contributions, and they accept him as their captain. (At least for now.) This scene makes for such a perfect mirror to the later use of a Cat Stevens song that you could probably make a lighthouse out of it if you had to.
4) “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen, deployed in “Wherever You Go, There You Are”
Ed releases the silk, Ed “murders” Lucius (I THINK THE FUCK NOT, but we’ll see I guess), Ed tortures Izzy into adoration, Ed paints his face, Ed destroys every trace of Stede but the lighthouse painting.
After threading a needle between ridiculous comedy and heartfelt romance, the show dives into the depths with Ed, and uses one of our greatest poets of heartbreak to do it. There is not a single drop of comedy in this sequence. Ed is broken, Ed is going to punish everyone for the pain he’s feeling, and Leonard Cohen is the best possible choice to make sure we all take it seriously.
“Your pain is no credential here, it’s just the shadow—shadow of my wound.”
3) “Our Prayer” by The Beach Boys, deployed in “The Gentleman Pirate”
Our first encounters with Blackbeard are of a forbidding, black-clad shape, puffing on a long pipe so the smoke winds into the tendrils of his beard and hair. His face is turned from us, and it’s easy to buy into the idea that when he turns around, he’ll actually be the fire-eyed monster of Black Pete’s stories.
When we finally see him it’s from Stede’s perspective: flattened on the deck, bleeding out and half-hanged. The camera/Stede’s eyes travel up Blackbeard’s body much as the camera traveled up his ship’s mast a few episodes ago. Blackbeard, used to making an impression, literally preens like an exotic bird.
Blackbeard (threatening/seductive): “Gentleman Pirate, I presume?”
Stede (seriously, almost all the way dead, but still thrilled): “You’ve heard of me?”
Blackbeard (even more threatening/SO MUCH MORE seductive): “I’ve heard of you. I’ve heard all about you.”
This is a classic meet cute if you know the show is a romcom, but in the moment, before you know that, what you know is that Stede told Blackbeard to “suck eggs in Hell” via Izzy, Izzy hates Stede, and Blackbeard may be planning to torture the crap out of Stede.
It’s a pretty fraught moment.
Then The Beach Boys’ “Our Prayer” kicks in, a wash of pure harmony, a beautiful transcendent sound that can’t help but pull us up out of the smoke and chaos of the battle and into the end credits, setting us up for (my personal favorite) episode, “Discomfort in a Married State,” where the show turns into something gloriously different than its marketing campaign suggested. Without using lyrics to telegraph any punches, without being too obvious, “Our Prayer” shifts the tone of the scene (and the show) in the last seconds, and points to something more emotional than what we’ve seen so far.
2) “Miles from Nowhere” by Cat Stevens, “Wherever You Go, There You Are”
This song was obviously used pretty iconically in Harold and Maude, and it turned up at a pivotal moment in in one of my all-time favorite films, The Brothers Bloom, so I’m already wrecked as the first notes start, but it’s especially good here. About a person accepting themselves, coming to terms with some shit, heading out, clear-eyed, on an adventure that’s going to be nigh-impossible. Using this song to underscore Stede’s shockingly successful fuckery, Mary’s toast where she frees him from their marriage, only to cut to Frenchie raising the new flag at gunpoint—it’s super emotional? But then it keeps playing as Bonnet’s crew try to eat The Swede and suddenly things are hilarious again, except then we see poor eviscerated Ed sobbing all of his eyeliner off, and now Stede, penniless, bookless, Ed-less, is rowing himself across the Caribbean to rescue his abandoned found family… somehow? And then presumably rescue Ed from himself?
THIS is how the rollercoaster ends, a note of weird, painful optimism, and it’s fucking perfect.
But I’ll come back to optimism in a sec. First, with apologies, I have to run all of you through, emotionally speaking, because #1 is, inevitably…
1) “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, deployed in “We Gull Way Back”
This song gets used a lot when a filmmaker needs BIG EMOTION. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, for instance, which, while James Gunn is often very good at using musical cues, that one was so on-the-nose it belongs in a literal nose jar.)
But as with all thing OFMD, there are layers here, people.
First, the counterpoint between the high drama of the song and a fairly comical slo-mo pirate capture sequence is perfect. I’ll never again hear Stevie Nicks without thinking about a naked Mr. Buttons dodging English seamen. (It’s a fun addition to the burrito thing.)
It’s also one of the most exquisitely-synced soundtracks I’ve ever seen, in anything, ever. The English drummer’s taps are timed to Mick Fleetwood’s drums; Frenchie’s lute-strumming is timed to the guitar, and Admiral Badminton pulls himself onto the ship in perfect time with Buckingham coming in with “If you don’t love me now.”
But then, well, you all know. The song drops out long enough for:
Stede: “You came back!”
Ed: “Never left.” (wink)
the bass slowwwwly comes up in unison with the crane pulling back, and Ed reaches his foot over to Stede, and Stede reciprocates the foot nudge at the exact moment the guitar comes screaming back, and why am I crying AGAIN and
and the rest of the song plays out over the credits.
Maybe everything went tits-up in the various romantic travails of the members of Fleetwood Mac, but Ed and Stede are forever.
This show? This show. I’ve been in pieces for weeks. Before I leave you, allow me to direct you to Alex Brown’s excellent piece, and Maya Gittelman’s excellent piece. And this is a pretty good list, yeah? Maybe there’ll be a few quibbles, some people might want The Beach Boys higher, I can see that… but wait.
I haven’t shown you… the Special Secret Auxiliary #1 Needledrop.
Auxiliary #1) Gnossiene No. 5 by Eric Satie, deployed in “Discomfort in a Married State”, “Dressing Well is the Best Revenge”, and “Act of Grace”
The Gnossiene is an experimental musical form invented and named by Eric Satie, who was just as iconoclastic as Moondog actually, and he may have gone with the name Gnossiene as a nod to his growing interest in Gnosticism and Rosicruscianism when he worked on the pieces. Gnossiene #’s 1-4 are dark and moody, not a Monica nor a Rita to be found. And then we come to #5.
Light, delicate, playful, wistful, idiosyncratic, kind of weird—could there be a better love theme for two star cross’t pirates?
We hear it first just after Stede asks Ed if he “fancies a fine fabric,” and innocently ushers the man into a whole new chapter in his life. It plays just after Stede tells Ed that he “wears fine things well,” when Ed tries to turn a gasp into a derisive snort, but Stede won’t let him reject the compliment. I’m pretty sure a harpsichord version plays for a moment when Ed is sobbing in the bathtub and Stede reassures him that they’re friends. And of course it plays when Ed finally gets up the nerve to kiss Stede.
So, it’s their love theme. Cool.
But as I said before, the layers.
I’ve been thinking about why this show has blown up the way it has. And part it is just that it’s a great romance, and part of it is that queer people excel at championing things on social media. But a lot of it is hope, I think. I know I’m not the only one who feels trapped and helpless, in a terrible time, with tragedy and horror at every turn. And no, even the gayest, most piratey TV show in history is going to fix that, exactly, but what the show’s done is give a lot of people a jolt of pure hope. Queer people, yes, of course, for once we weren’t baited and disappointed. Beyond the excellent queer stuff and the fantastic representation, both the show and its characters practice a commitment to creativity in the face of impossible odds.
The first time we hear Gnossiene #5 is in the moment when Stede asks Ed if he fancies a fine fabric. It continues playing quietly as Stede shares his secret Auxiliary Wardrobe, as Ed, filled with admiration, murmurs “Fuck off” and gleefully charges into Stede’s closet. It plays when Stede takes a piece of tatty old silk, transforms it into a pocket square, and steadfastly refuses to let his boyfriend feel ashamed of himself. And it’s playing again when Ed reminds Stede that “there’s always an escape.” This is their love theme, yes, but it’s also reminding us each time that their love is based in wild possibility, emotional leaps from high cliffs, and hope for a better future.