Album Review: Spencer Original Soundtrack

At the beginning of Spencer, Diana Spencer, aka Princess Diana, who’s portrayed by Kristen Stewart, rolls up to a small town café by herself, decked out in posh clothes. Fragmented, frenetic sounds rumble underneath her voice as she asks for directions and the café stares back at her. She’s lost and out of place, stressed but we don’t know why. Once she gets back home to the palace for Christmas, everything starts to fall into greater disarray, accompanied by jagged, unraveling music that makes her world feel like a nightmare despite its silky gowns and gold leaf wallpaper. 

Spencer purports itself to be a raw, semi-biographical semi-fictional telling of Diana’s painful life underneath the royal glamor. This is becoming a fairly common topic in our current moment—it’s no secret that media coverage of ‘90s and ‘00s female celebrities wasn’t kind and that the British royal class has dark secrets. It’s also no secret that Diana sat at the intersection of both realities, living a life that became tabloid fodder. Right now, though, we’re trying to reckon with that past, looking towards figures like Diana (and other public figures like Britney Spears) to reflect society’s shortcomings. At best, we can better understand what not to do in the future. At worst, we’re continuing to ogle and stare.

Watching Spencer feels like a bit of both. As Diana’s life crumbles, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic, but it’s equally hard not to keep staring, to keep seeing her as an image used to explain the dark side of her life rather than seeing her as a person living through it. To its credit, Spencer feels more like a fever dream than reality: Diana is constantly spinning, reeling from the horror of living with constant judgment and self-hatred as the film’s ominous music seems to swallow her whole. 

In fact, it’s the music that makes the film’s premise come to life. Jonny Greenwood brings lush strings and Penderecki-reminiscent textures to his soundtrack that unites the feeling of chaotic improvisation with the relentlessly structured orchestra. But these two poles are barely mixed together: Every moment feels like it’s tied together by a gossamer thread, so thin that at any point it could all fall into disarray, much like Diana’s precarious position within the royal family. 

This is a sound Greenwood toyed with on 2018’s Phantom Thread soundtrack, which dealt heavy-handed irony, tulle, and Romanticism in spades. Both films themselves feel like watching scenes too grotesque to be shown on Masterpiece Theater. But where Greenwood put twisted humor into Phantom Thread, on Spencer he chooses good old-fashioned horror, lacing every rich harmony with a twinge of surrealist eeriness that makes every one of Diana’s motions in the film feel more terrifying than the last.

Greenwood has also become known for his scores that stand alone, working as companions to films rather than accompaniment. His Spencer soundtrack follows this path, reading as its own creepy entity that needs fictional Diana far less than fictional Diana needs it. “Arrival,” the opener, sets the stage for the score’s mix of “high society” sounds and turbulent improvisations by introducing a melancholy, Phantom Thread-reminiscent string motif that’s eventually overtaken by an anguished trumpet, only to reemerge more forlorn than before. This is probably the most compelling motif and put together track on the soundtrack, driven by an unrelentingly catchy melody and quirky groove. 

As the score continues, these early motifs morph and change, following standard film conventions. On “Ancient and Modern,” an ode made of Baroque-inspired harpsichord and plaintive violins, the opener’s theme becomes tangled and untangled; on “Spencer,” we hear a piano-only version of that theme and on “Press Call” we hear it again on a doom-filled organ. With every repetition, the theme becomes more yearning, more despondent. It’s something like a persistent intrusive thought—always re-emerging whether we’d like it to or not.

Greenwood’s method throughout the score is to introduce lovely themes and then tear them apart, letting the original theme overtake them with its ever-present power; it’s a mirror image of Spencer’s thesis. This musical choice is most effective on tracks like “The Pearls,” which begins as a lovely rendition of a 19th century chamber piece, made of delicately rounded edges and perfect syncopation. By the end, these sounds have subtly morphed into something more gruff and pained, driven by gritty bow strokes and disintegrating rhythms. It’s like “keeping up appearances” but in sound.

At other points, Greenwood relies on bringing in free improvisation to break the mold of the classical structures, letting one crash land into the other. This trick is a mixed bag. Tracks like “Frozen Three” make good use of the two forces mostly because strings are using a bevy of extended techniques as if they’re playing a watered down version of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which pairs well with the eventual entrance of a jazz ensemble that shrieks through the dense texture of the strings to create pure pandemonium. But on “Delusion – Miracle,” the technique doesn’t land—the lush string quartet and chugging jazz section simply do not mesh, playing on top of each other in chaos. The slow crumble that makes other tracks work is lost here for something too heavy handed.

I’d almost prefer if the entire score was classical—it is the music of European royalty, after all, so the slow decay of these forms feels metaphorically apt. The only time the improvisation-classical blend truly works is on the opening track; most of the time, the entrance of free improvisation feels like it’s only there to get those perfect structures to become, well, imperfect, and also a little bit creepy. The only exceptions to this rule are the moments that bring in more contemporary forms, like “Frozen Three” and the drone-y “Home-Lacrimosa,” which is a positively radiant moment on the soundtrack. Otherwise, the more modern moments don’t get their fair due as a separate, stunning element of the music, rather, they feel like a tool to get the score where it needs to go.

Spencer’s soundtrack ultimately finds its footing in subtlety, in the moments where a tiny shift in rhythm, or bow stroke, or dynamic that signifies the rot inside of all the beauty. Classical music is a glass house. One wrong note and the whole thing is ruined; Greenwood has a handle on this and exploits it well. I’d like to hear it even more: Give me a string quartet that starts as a late-Beethoven masterpiece and ends in noisy doom. There’s something that feels inherently right about showing just how easy it is to tear all that “perfection” down.