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Album Review

What happens when the world's hippest alt-bluegrass producer (that would be T Bone Burnett) signs on to produce the soundtrack for the most anticipated movie of the year (that would be The Hunger Games)? The combination creates a compelling collection of 16 lament-filled meditations whose melancholy meanderings match the somber, tragic intensity of the violent story that inspired them—with a few roaring rockers thrown into the mix to reveal a touch of outrage.

In The Hunger Games, we're introduced to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a dystopian future world where lottery-selected teens are forced to fight to the death in sadistic, televised "games." When her younger sister's name is drawn, Katniss steps up, volunteering to take her place. Those details are important here, because lyrics in the majority of these songs directly reference her harrowing story. As Rolling Stone reviewer Joe Levy noted, "For better or worse, this is the rare soundtrack that feels like it's made by and for fans."

And those fans would be? An eclectic mix of sonic superstars (Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Miranda Lambert), indie darlings (Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Neko Case), rising talents (The Civil Wars, Glen Hansard) and a handful of artists few of us had ever heard of before this soundtrack (Birdy, The Low Anthem, Jaymee Dee, Carolina Chocolate Drops).

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Five tender songs strive to find hope, solace and calm amid upheaval. The Secret Sister's "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" hopes for exactly that outcome: "Sorrow weighs my shoulders down/ … But I know the present will not last/And tomorrow will be kinder." Taylor Swift's hit " Safe & Sound" promises something similar ("Come morning light/You'll be safe and sound"). "Dark Days," by Punch Brothers, admonishes Katniss' mother and sister to cling to love, the only thing that can see them through: "We don't have to reap the fear they sow/Friends, as long as we hide our love away/In the good they'll never know." Two tracks, "Run Daddy Run," by Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies, as well as "The Daughter's Lament," by Carolina Chocolate Drops, deal with the tragic death of Katniss' father in a mine (before the movie's narrative begins). On the former, Lambert breathlessly advises, "Daddy, can you hear the devil drawing near/Like a bullet from a gun?/Run, Daddy, run!"

Six songs chronicle Katniss' loss of innocence and the consequences of fighting in the Hunger Games. Swift's "Eyes Open" informs us that she's utterly alone ("It's a showdown, and nobody comes to save you now"), which requires her to sleep with one eye always open. Suffering (The Decemberists' "One Engine"), perpetual flight (The Civil Wars' "Kingdome Come" and Jayme Dee's "Rules"), and the hardening of her heart (Neko Case's "Nothing to Remember") are other mourned outcomes. Birdy focuses on the fact that the Hunger Games are anything but games, far from being child's play (in "Just a Game").

Two haunting tunes, Maroon 5's "Come Away to the Water" and Kid Cudi's "The Ruler and the Killer," draw attention to the sadism of Katniss' captors and tormentors as they try to cajole her into playing by their horrifying rules. Maroon 5's effort, especially, chillingly captures the ghoulish way spectators suck parasitic "life" out of the tragic deaths of children ("Come away, little lamb/Come away to the water/Give yourself that we might live anew/ … Come away to the slaughter").

A double entendre on "Lover Is Childlike," by The Low Anthem, rejects allegiance to despotic, totalitarian governments ("She don't care for country/ … As the band plays the anthem/She whispers, 'God hates flags'). But that line …

Objectionable Content

… is also an overly clever echo of another, extremely hurtful phrase. The song includes repeated references to "my lover."

Glen Hansard's "Take the Heartland" also reveals the dire result of turning TV into a killing field, but may go one step too far in the way it screamingly threatens, "I'm gonna/Throw my friends down in the ditches before they even know what I've come here for/ … I'm gonna/Take the life in [a] knife/ … Should I kill you with my sword?"

Arcade Fire's odd opener, "Abraham's Daughter," re-imagines the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac with a lurking, nameless daughter of the patriarch ensuring that her brother's sacrifice never comes to pass: "Just as an angel cried for the slaughter/Abraham's daughter raised her voice/ … And when he saw her raised for the slaughter/Abraham's daughter raised her bow/ … You better let young Isaac go."

Summary Advisory

This soundtrack to The Hunger Games is every bit as emotionally demanding as the movie itself. Artist after artist contemplates the beauty and fragility of life and love, set as they are against the cruel backdrop of tragedy and death. Thus, plaintive, poignant glimpses of life's value abound.

But it's impossible to fully separate those positive themes from the moody, melancholy milieu in which they're situated. Rolling Stone's Levy accurately observes that the songs embody a "pervasive mournfulness," and that T Bone Burnett has created "an apocalyptico Appalachia that has never seen a hoedown and has no idea how to make joy out of mud."

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