The artists featured on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are a representative cross-section of the current vogue in pop, indie, and EDM, with a few veteran ringers tossed in for good measure. From the camp of new-folk twaddle, Of Monsters and Men leads the twee charge with “Silhouettes,” reminiscent of the Cranberries in their austere perma-frown period, with martial drums and ominous strings lightly dipped in feedback, and a tune that goes nowhere. Imagine Dragons' “Who We Are” performs nearly the same trick, minus the tasteful fuzz and plus some tribal-sounding drums. It's perfectly useful music for a scene of Katniss being chased through a forest or bleak urban landscape, but not much else. The Lumineers' “Gale Song” is another jam-band-friendly pastiche of Jeff Buckley delivered by a singer who's never met a lyric he couldn't strain through his nose.
Another bloc of the album is occupied by a few of the biggest electro-pop superstar aspirants. The best and friskiest song on the album, “Elastic Heart” is a seamless and highly successful team-up that reads like a grimier after-market version of Lady Gaga's “Do What U Want,” with Sia and the Weeknd trading yearning vocals over Diplo's signature skitter, before entwining them into a gorgeous, pulsating crescendo. This sudden surge of welcome urgency is immediately squelched by the Weeknd's solo effort, “Devil May Cry,” a sonically empty cupboard overseen by a seemingly disinterested creator. Say what you will about the man (and his solipsism, wild-eyed paranoia, and open misogyny certainly provide plenty of fodder for discussion), but even his critics couldn't possibly welcome the drippy, neutered R. Kelly shtick found here. Similarly popular Internet talking point Lorde provides an equally listless contribution with a cover of Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” In the '90s, the cliché for '80s pop covers was to bathe them in “edgy” metallic guitars, but since Gary Jules's cover of “Mad World,” the cliché—wholly embraced here by Lorde—has become even more simple: play…it…really…slowly. Compared to the Weeknd and Lorde's sedated mewling, the new-Enya audio wallpaper of Ellie Goulding's “Mirror” comes across like a club-crashing anthem.
The album's old-guard pros sadly don't lend much more to the proceedings than their younger counterparts. The National has come to commendably embrace its dad-rock roots in recent years, but based on “Lean,” this seems to mean becoming a sadcore Chris Isaak. Patti Smith offers something similar with “Capital Letter,” but at least she's earned the outsized angst in her composition. That said, the track sounds a lot like Jethro Tull. Characterized by the same somnambulance, “Atlas” is autopilot Coldplay dipping into its back catalogue for a paycheck, but at least it approximates a pulse. Though the band may have zero insider-cred, “Atlas” proves that “Clocks” played at three-quarter speed with most of the chorus scooped out still runs rings around most of the current zeitgeist. And at the very least, Christina Aguilera's “We Remain” has a discernible chorus, with the singer unembarrassed to break a sweat in pursuit of pop thrills.
Soundtracks are perfectly representative of how contemporary pop music is perceived: as a curated singles collection. Yet because there's little-to-no physical component to the way music is sold today, there's no incentive to buy the album (as opposed to simply picking and choosing tracks on a case-by-case basis)—unless, of course, you have a particular allegiance to Katniss and her struggle for independence/freedom from oppression/love and a good ham sandwich. For the rest of us, pick up “Elastic Heart” and go spend the rest on groceries.