There are essentially two directions to follow when evaluating movie soundtracks: first is to look at how well the score supplements the story and is integrated into the full experience of the sights and sounds on the screen. The second approach is to hear the soundtrack on its own merits without any preconceived notions about its interconnections with the dialogue and action. In short, can a soundtrack album stand alone and be appreciated for the music and nothing but the music? Or is it unfair to discuss arrangements and settings designed to be a slice of a more multi-layered endeavor?
For the purposes of this review, I’m taking the second approach. For one thing, I haven’t yet seen the movie. More importantly, it seems to me that if listeners are going to invest time and money in an original soundtrack album, they should have a satisfying payoff and be able to appreciate what a composer created, no matter what the inspiration might have been. In the case of Alberto Iglesias, the Spanish composer deserves special attention for his film work. While primarily known for his European scores for the past 20 years, he was nominated for both Academy and BAFDA awards for The Constant Gardener (2005) and The Kite Runner (2007). Such plum assignments, especially in an era where original orchestral scores are no longer the norm, were ideal precedents for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Films that are character and not action-driven require musical beds that add aural depth, not energetic bombast, and Iglesias is perfectly suited for such work. Even without the visuals and personal relationships of Tinker, it’s clear Iglesias is very good at providing music that is both cerebral in its complexity and emotional in its effects.
While the music to Tinker has been described as “jazzy,” I suspect this choice of words has more to do with the instruments involved than any feel or style of the selections. The solos, for example, are short and muted, the tones more Stravinsky than Ellington. The flavor is completely continental. What is apparent from start to finish, no doubt akin to the themes of duplicity and hidden agendas in the script, is that whatever motifs are built as main melodies, there’s something going on underneath it all. The album opens with the moody, atmospheric “George Smiley”–the name, of course, of the central character. It features both trumpet and oboe lines in varying time signatures, stopping and starting as if following the methodical investigator on his journey. Shorter cuts like “Treasure,” “Witchcraft,” and “Islay Hotel” also offer hauntingly beautiful melody lines while piano, strings, harp, and acoustic guitar provide undercurrents of musical tension.
Iglesias uses more dissonant tones and textures for “Control” and “Polyakov,” perhaps to help illustrate the off-key sides of Smiley’s adversaries. As with the more gentle “Alleline And Bland On The Roof,” the subtle and understated performances still convey an urgency and unease to the pace. Not surprisingly, “Safe House” doesn’t sound safe. As the story progresses and the intensity increases, “Carla,” “Esterhase,” and “Guillam” rise in dynamics with an expanded and dark string section. But at no point–not even in the final title track–do we hear notes of triumph or affirmation. If you know the story, you know Smiley’s victory isn’t one he can fully celebrate.
Throughout, Iglesias does indeed provide a listenable experience, although it’s difficult not to have mental pictures to go with various passages, whether from the novel, original TV dramatization, or likely from the film for those who have seen it. Then again, what instrumental music doesn’t tend to stir up the visual imaginations of an audience? In this case, you don’t need to know the title to be aware a mystery is afoot. Perhaps the album’s main weakness is that no track jumps out as a memorable theme likely to be reinterpreted by other orchestras or groups. Still, with any justice, this score will garner more award nominations for Iglesias. Serious soundtrack collectors will want this disc, while most listeners will likely want to see the movie first and then decide if they’re intrigued enough to spend an hour with a well-crafted slice of the movie.