T Bone Burnett has become the go-to guy when it comes to roots-music soundtracks, and given the post-apocalyptic Appalachian setting of The Hunger Games‘s 12th District, he was the obvious choice to helm this one. The original novel’s legion of foaming-at-the-mouth devotees included countless recording artists, making it easy for Burnett to assemble a phenomenal lineup of acts to contribute to the film adaptation’s soundtrack. And, even if it doesn’t ever quite reach the glorious heights of Burnett’s O Brother, Where Are Thou?, The Hunger Games: Songs from the 12th District and Beyond is truly inspired in its execution.
Burnett develops a tone that’s not only consistent with, but also greatly enhances the tone of Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s novel. Within just the opening few bars of Arcade Fire’s stunning “Abraham’s Daughter,” the militaristic percussion line reflects aggressive political oppression, the bluegrass-inspired instruments make a clear connection to the rural, coal-mining setting, and the minor-key arrangement conveys a suitably bleak mood. From the off-kilter, muffled rhythms that scuttle beneath the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ spare “Daughter’s Lament” to the sudden burst of violence conveyed by the unexpected tonal shift of Glen Hansard’s thundering “Take the Heartland” amid a string of comparatively quiet folk tracks, Burnett’s smart production choices are on point throughout.
Burnett’s intuitive decisions give the album a real sense of gravity. Foregrounding a heavy bass in the mix of Maroon 5’s “Come Away to the Water”—a far more fully realized and competently performed track than that band has ever committed to record—makes the song suitably ominous, as though it were luring its subject to certain doom. Dropping the instruments when Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars sing the hook of their lullaby, “Safe & Sound,” highlights an amelodic run during a key phrase, which gives the distinct impression that the song’s narrator doesn’t entirely believe in her promise that tomorrow will be better.
The album’s best tracks have both emotional and tangible stakes, and that’s ultimately what elevates the soundtrack above the wafer-thin characterizations and poorly blocked action sequences of Ross’s film. “Run Daddy Run,” inexplicably credited to “Miranda Lambert featuring the Pistol Annies” even though Ashley Monroe sings lead for the majority of the song, trades in imagery of violence and weaponry, though the song itself is a gut check about the emotional ramifications of abandonment. The allusions to “fight or flight setting in” on Neko Case’s extraordinary “Nothing to Remember” work just as well in the context of relationship dynamics as they do to the The Hunger Games‘s central battle royale, and the “Dark Days” that the Punch Brothers sing about don’t explicitly refer to a future dystopia.
Just as Burnett doesn’t adhere to the strict conventions of folk music, the artists responsible for the songwriting and performances aren’t limited by literal adaptations. Even the handful of tracks that are more directly tied to the source material (“Daughter’s Lament” slips in a reference to a “mockingjay,” while the power dynamics of Kid Cudi’s “The Ruler and the Killer” are perhaps a bit too on the nose) don’t draw undue attention to themselves or falter as a result of their faithfulness. Instead, the songs have their own fully developed stories to tell. In doing so, they consistently hit on the themes that have made The Hunger Games such a broadly appealing and resonant work, making for a soundtrack that reflects favorably on the film and which stands entirely on its own merits.