Released in 1934 and only sporadically discussed since, Robert Flaherty’s film Man of Aran wasn’t exactly begging for a new soundtrack. Inspired by the film’s peculiar costumes and nautical romanticism, however, British Sea Power has given it one, a strangely inscrutable choice that nevertheless provides a broad new canvas for a band lapsing into mid-career staleness. The film, a somewhat fictionalized semi-documentary in the Nanook of the North mold, follows the daily lives of a few scant occupants of the harsh Irish islands of Aran, a small, bleakly rocky chain pounded by an insistently churning sea. The album isn’t just inspired by this source; it’s an actual new score for the film, following it faithfully through moments of high drama and quotidian routine. But this kind of straightforward interpretation creates an unfortunate division. As a soundtrack, it works (mostly) well, but as a standalone album, it feels drearily wan and insignificant.
Thankfully, in a thoughtful gesture, the movie is presented as a bonus DVD synced up with the band’s new score. The effect is exhilarating, but at times broad—less informed by the tone of the film than doggedly literal, to the point of beats matching up lockstep with the quick cuts of certain scenes. When the visuals are placid, the music ranges into soft and twinkling piano exploration; as the action rises, the music climbs bombastically alongside it. In some ways, this improves on John Greenwood’s original score, which is pedestrian to the point of being unnoticeable, without overpowering the footage. But it also robs the viewing experience of some of its gravitas, with the everyday struggles of a group of long-dead peasants now abstrusely matched to a bulky progression of fist-pumping post-rock guitar swells.
It’s also hard to imagine listening to much of this outside of its capacity as window-dressing for the film. Certain parts are self-sustainable: A cover of “Come Wander with Me,” a haunting tune made famous on an episode of The Twilight Zone, is an eerie choice that works entirely in its own context, while the roaring “Spearing the Sunfish,” which accompanies the film’s de facto climax, retains a marvelous edge, capturing the drama of a shark hunt, but also feeling perfectly suitable without it. Other tracks, however, like the 10-plus-minute epics “The South Sound” and “It Comes Back Again” feel baggy and meandering when divorced from their source material, a rootless irrelevance that plagues this already eccentric project as a whole.