Over the course of 18 tracks, composer and Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman takes his listener through different worlds. His first studio album in 37 years, Big Mess breaks barriers and departs from his usually spine-tingling and quirky film scores and humorous art rock. The album opens up with a guitar riff and disembodied choir-reminiscent vocals singing “I’m sorry.” Elfman enters with his own vocals and the instrumentation evolves in ways that keep the listener listening.
“Sorry” is the album’s first track, but it is just the beginning. “True” begins with strings, which are more in line with Elfman’s compositional work. Then chaotic electronics immediately take over. It trudges like a sci-fi film from an indiscriminate time. While Elfman’s vocals are a little out of place here, some may prefer an instrumental of this piece, it is interesting nonetheless.
“In Time” is another track that blends Elfman’s compositional sensibilities and his desire to combine them with creative, artsy rock music. There are echoes of the Talking Heads, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Nick Cave, and Eflman’s early band Oingo Boingo filtered through a perverse, darkly rich texture of sounds. String sections, female backing vocals, and electronics are perfectly blended. Not only is the songwriting impeccable, the production is seamless, raw yet clean.
Eerie tingling percussion mixes with delayed vocals and interjecting synth sounds in the track “Everybody Loves You.” Then it drives hard and the listener can’t discern between guitars and synthesizers. Continuously the writing surprises. Four tracks in, the release is cohesive, concise, consistent, and creatively arranged.
There’s something about this album that evokes a nerdy rock opera, with impeccably written riffs, instrumental passages, and simple, defiant lyrics. Sometimes the listener yearns for just the instrumentation without the vocals and lyrics, but it’s clear that Elfman wanted to take a step away from his usual work. If you want film scores, there are 120 of is that you can listen to. This is not that.
Six songs in, the listener begins to lose where they are in this behemoth of an album. You start to wonder what the rest will be like, if there will be a definitive shift, or if there will be 18 songs that continue the themes that have been established. Then “Choose Your Side” has a sample of a familiar voice—Donald J. Trump. It begins to take on a subtle socio-political tone that continues through “Love in the Time of COVID.”
The album is daringly long, perhaps too long. It goes by quickly, there is no wasted time, but at 72 minutes it’s difficult to imagine the average listener sticking around for the duration. But that’s what it makes it so brave. Elfman is relying on real music lovers to sit through this epic album that can be at times wacky and at times quite serious. Over time the album becomes more accessible, more rock influenced.
The first half of the album is much more unique, emotional, and satisfying. but it certainly didn’t need to be this long. There are songs that could have been omitted from the track list. Perhaps it should have been promoted as a double album or split into different releases. While there are some spectacular moments on this record, it begins to lose the listener and becomes something more predictable, more commonplace. This listener at least wishes that Dann Elfman would have utilized his compositional skills to create a more unique combination between rock music and composition.