album review

The Games of Thrones Soundtrack Acts Like It’s Too Cool to Nerd Out Over the Show

For the Throne misses the mark. Photo: HBO

Tie-in soundtracks are strange beasts. Sometimes, you get earnest, heartbreaking Randy Newman songs about friendships between anthropomorphic children’s toys. Sometimes you get Tyler, the Creator having a blast diving into the mind of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch. The bad ones are a special kind of bad. Supermarket, the musical accompaniment to the rapper Logic’s New York Times best-selling debut novel of the same name, indulged the artist’s shakiest non-rap impulses. The music for the original Spider-Man trilogy is a grab bag of startlingly incongruous butt rock, nu metal, punk, and garage rock tunes that gambled wildly on the idea that Nickelback, the Strokes, Dashboard Confessional, Train, and Snow Patrol had a lot of fans in common. It’s not that writing songs about imaginary characters is risky business — Stevie Nicks made a mint singing about witches and wonders in Fleetwood Mac. It’s hard to locate a sensible mix of fictional lore and real emotion and all too easy to come off incredibly silly from miscalculating the balance.

Game of Thrones has trouble embracing pop culture because the world of Westeros is so different from our own. It’s not like the Marvel movies, where you can just plop a beloved classic rock anthem under a scene and cross-pollinate feels. (Avengers: Endgame opening with Traffic’s “Mr. Fantasy” threw me for a loop, and I still can’t handle Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s use of Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son.”) Thrones sneaks celebrities into the margins. It gives cameos to Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, and members of the band Mastodon. It slips a Florence and the Machine performance into an episode’s closing credits. As subtle as the show’s use of celebrities has been on camera, the collections of music inspired by the series are pretty batshit. The Catch the Throne mixtape tried, to varying degrees of success, to make the show look cool by calling in a gaggle of rappers. The sequel got reckless, dropping Anthrax and Mastodon into the mix with guys like Talib Kweli and Method Man. As goofy as Catch the Throne got, it was hilarious hearing Big Boi slander the Lannisters and obsess over Targaryen bloodlines on “Mother of Dragons.”

The latest compilation, For the Throne: Music Inspired by the HBO Series Game of Thrones, thinks its above this kind of song. “These artists are all cool and they don’t want to say corny shit,” producer and writer Ricky Reed said of his decision to steer talent away from overt references to the show’s characters and constructs. For the Throne tries to make the show’s mythical world relatable by zeroing in on the human concerns animating its characters. Maren Morris and Lennon Stella handle the mission with grace on “Kingdom of One” and “Love Can Kill.” Chloe x Halle hop inside the thoughts of teen assassin Arya Stark in the delightfully vengeful “Wolf at Your Door.” Muse’s Matt Bellamy scores points for making the only song that could actually play during the show with the ominous “Pray (High Valyrian).” Themes of anger and betrayal sit comfortably in the Weeknd’s wheelhouse on the SZA and Travis Scott collaboration “Power Is Power.” But too many downers in a row makes the album a tough listen. “Hollow Crown,” “Devil in Your Eye,” “Baptize Me,” and “Too Many Gods” see Ellie Goulding, Mumford & Sons, X Ambassadors, and A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$, respectively, getting lost in quasi-religious metaphors and drippy, dour goth-pop.

Almost every artist’s take on the unifying theme of Thrones centers gloom and doom, which is jarring, as the closer the show gets to its conclusion, the more it feels like a meditation on togetherness, on people pooling their specific skills and resources for the greater good. (The Battle of Winterfell is won through a complex web of windfalls and losses. Everyone needed to be exactly where they were for it to go on the way it did. Game of Thrones is not a show about the creeping death and the long winter. It’s a show about the warmth it takes to keep them both at bay.) The only song that drives this sentiment home is the sunny James Arthur tune “From the Grave.” The lyric about marching through fire and rain to reconnect with a loved one resonates in a season of tearjerking family reunions and fearless sacrifices. The spirit of Game of Thrones lives in Jon Snow staring down armies of the dead in defense of humankind, in Arya risking everything to save her brother, in Lyanna Mormont and Theon Greyjoy racing to the front lines of a fight they could’ve easily avoided. It’s love. It’s solidarity. It’s hope! For the Throne misses the mark.

The Games of Thrones Soundtrack Tries to Be Way Too Cool