Various Artists - Until the End of the World (1991)
2022-06-04 14:06:46 ⋅ 3w
Write a song that sounds like the future. This was the challenge German filmmaker Wim Wenders posed to some of his favorite acts back in 1990, when he began compiling the soundtrack for his dystopian road movie Until the End of the World. What will you be writing about in ten years? How will your music sound? Set in 1999, the film follows its characters around the globe, across different continents and through different landscapes, chasing a machine that allows you to see your dreams. Music plays a crucial part, often mingling with these dreams until they become indistinguishable—fitting for a long-gestating project inspired by Aboriginal concepts of the subconscious.
Of the 20 artists to whom Wenders posed that challenge, almost all of them complied (Ray Davies was allegedly a holdout). Each seemed to rise to the occasion in a different way. R.E.M. and U2 offered outtakes from their recent hit albums, while David Byrne reclaimed an old Naked outtake to create one of Talking Heads’ final songs. Can reunited for a single session, inviting original vocalist Malcolm Mooney to chant the percolating “Last Night’s Sleep.” Such was Wenders’ reputation after 1984’s Paris, Texas and 1987’s Wings of Desire that he could coax rarities out of the world’s biggest bands and persuade others to get back together. Despite a soundtrack with so many endorsements, the film was a flop, mainly because Wenders was forced to pare his five-hour opus down to a more marketable two-and-a-half hours. The theatrical cut was leaden and confusing.
That makes Criterion’s new release of Wenders’ director’s cut a revelation, even more startling than Run-Out Groove’s new vinyl reissue of the soundtrack. The two have always existed slightly apart from each other; many more people heard the soundtrack than bothered to see the film. Still, they both start in the same place and trace similar journeys. With its woozy horns and debauched beats, Talking Heads’ “Sax & Violins” offers a jittery vision of the future, even if the track itself was a few years old by then. There are a few detours, most notably Julee Cruise’s otherworldly cover of Elvis Presley’s “Summer Kisses Winter Tears”; if it sounds like it’s from a very different kind of movie, that might be because it was produced by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.
What’s most remarkable about the album, however, is its consistency despite the variety of artists and sounds. Its tone is forlorn, almost decadent in its melancholy, which manifests in a strange, uneasy shimmer that runs through so many of these songs. Lou Reed’s “What’s Good” ponders the everyday details that change when a close friend dies. On the spoken-word number “It Takes Time,” Patti Smith and husband Fred “Sonic” Smith sound like they’re circling the same dark memory, each afraid to approach it directly, as the music thrums and shivers around them. Depeche Mode trade their synths and guitars for what sounds like a Black Lodge jazz combo, and Martin Gore’s lyrics welcome death as a respite from an unruly world: “Mother, are you waiting? Father, are you pacing? I’m coming home.” It could be a cover of an Appalachian hymn from 1899.
Fitting for a film by Wenders, these are songs full of vehicles and highways, evoking the odd isolation of hours spent hurtling alone down an empty road. “Whispering, as I was driving/Quietly the car rolling like a bullet,” Neneh Cherry chants on “Move With Me (Dub),” a sleek disassembling of a track from 1992’s Homebrew. Only Nick Cave, in one of his most actorly performances, offers much in the way of a story within his song, which involves a bomb in a bread basket, an exploding hotel, a blind pencil seller and his dead dog, set to a drinking-song chorus that’s one of the soundtrack’s purest highlights.
There is a sense of finality, to these songs, as though the soundtrack is marking the end of… something. Maybe an era of alternative music. Until the End of the World includes three legendary bands that were defunct by the time it was released—Talking Heads and Can, but also Berlin-based goth-adjacent outfit Crime & the City Solution. There are several acts that were moving permanently out of the underground and into the mainstream—not just R.E.M. and Depeche Mode but k.d. lang (who duets with Jane Siberry on “Calling All Angels”). Until the End of the World was released just three months after Ten and two months after Nevermind, two albums that redefined rock music for the new decade. This soundtrack doesn’t live in that world. Like the movie, it remains unmoored from the past, gesturing towards a future that’s always enticingly out of reach.