Album Review: Various Artists, ‘I Saw the TV Glow (Original Soundtrack)’

    There are a million ways to take in I Saw the TV Glow, director Jane Schoenbrun’s terrific second feature about two teenagers who obsess and bond over a monster-of-the-week TV show in the 1990s. Shoenbrun has said they wanted “the whole movie to feel like the memory of television,” and though I didn’t grow up during that decade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a clear reference point for The Pink Opaque, the series that both shapes the friendship between Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and distorts their relationship to reality – was formative in my coming-of-age. One sequence in the film that stirred something in me – nostalgia, you might call it – echoes the scenes in Buffy where the action would pause for live performances at the show’s fictitious club venue, the Bronze. Here was my memory of television, at once summoned, blurred, and amplified.

    Shoenbrun asked the artists on the I Saw the TV Glow soundtrack – mostly queer and emerging stars in the indie world (a few of which have been featured in our Artist Spotlight interview series) – to contribute songs they would have written if they were to play a club like the Bronze. A couple of those artists, King Woman and Sloppy Jane (playing in a band with Phoebe Bridgers), literally deliver their songs onscreen, and the sequence that threads their performances also happens to split the movie in half. While Sloppy Jane and Bridgers’ contribution, ‘Claw Machine’, perfectly blends into the atmosphere of teenage angst and abstract melancholy that pervades the first half of the film, King Woman’s hellish shriek alone is transformative – not only veering into the realm of horror, but becoming a vessel for catharsis. After all, it’s the only moment in the film where music really assumes the same role as television for the audience. “It was weird how I basically put all of my emotional energy and love into that television show instead of my own life, but it was a coping mechanism,” Shoenbrun recently said of Buffy. “It was similar with the hug that Elliott Smith’s music gave me growing up, or any of the other music that got me through my teens.”

    All the artists here recognize this feeling (Bridgers certainly does), and as a collection listeners can fervently latch onto independently of the film, the soundtrack extends a similar embrace. Although the stylistic contrast between the aforementioned songs is deliberately jarring, the compilation is uniformly gorgeous and intoxicating, especially when experienced alongside the haunting score by Alex G, who reunites with Shoenbrun following his work on We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. On a conceptual level, though, it’s also fascinating to hear those artists essentially go back in time in an effort to articulate feelings that remain elusive but familiar to all of us, but whose expression will especially resonate with those approaching them from a relative distance, who aren’t directly inside them like the film’s protagonists. The soundtrack plays to the artist’s strengths, but rather than adheringto its cinematic vision, it also invites them to play with their own memories of being a teenager (or listening to music as a teenager), universalizing the the film’s anxieties without necessarily illuminating them.

    A certain demographic might immediately recognize the anthemic significance of Broken Social Scene’s ‘Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl’, but yeule’s glitched-up rendition positions it in the film’s liminal – or downright transitional – space: between truth and fiction, adolescence and adulthood. It immediately introduces us to the movie as a kind of dream world, one that bends even the most familiar signifiers while allowing these artists to stretch their sound within it. Most glaringly, Caroline Polachek trades her kaleidoscopic synthpop for an explosive (though still subtly fractured) grunge song that soundtracks a euphoric binge-watching sequence; Jay Som and Drab Majesty do a great job of emulating upbeat ‘90s alt-rock hits, which also serves to brighten the somber, otherworldly mood that dominates the soundtrack.

    Even when they don’t directly operate within the framework of the movie, many of the songs wander through the same liminal space, so they feel of it. Shoenbrun’s dialogue often withholds more than it reveals (though I still think about the line “someone took a shovel and dug out my insides”), which makes the conversational intimacy of songs like ‘Another Season’ by Frances Quinlan (of Hop Along) and Sadurn’s ‘How Can I Get Out?’ particularly striking, however unintentional. And thanks to the openness of Shoenbrun’s directions, even the musicians who stick to their style offer varying interpretations of the darkness and longing shared by the film: Maria BC’s is a bottomless well, shrinking rather than swelling with emotion, unlike L’Rain’s nostalgia-drenched ‘Green’. If Florist’s ‘Riding Around in the Dark’ provides an opportunity for escape and warmth, Bartees Strange’s ‘Big Glow’ tunes back into the hypnotizing glow. That glow is a metaphor, of course, and filtered through so many eyes and ears, it can mean so much. “Nobody wants to dwell inside thе meaning,” the Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman reminds us on ‘Moonlight’, however. “The dreaming, the longing, the feeling comes on slowly.” Another takeaway, it seems, is that it never really leaves you.

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    There are a million ways to take in I Saw the TV Glow, director Jane Schoenbrun’s terrific second feature about two teenagers who obsess and bond over a monster-of-the-week TV show in the 1990s. Shoenbrun has said they wanted “the whole movie to feel...Album Review: Various Artists, 'I Saw the TV Glow (Original Soundtrack)'