Calling anything the best thing ever is a bold claim. Those who know me know I exaggerate about as much as Todd Margaret makes poor decisions…which is to say constantly, but we’re talking about music now. I don’t hyperbolize with music. Last year I heard a song that I knew instantly was the best song I had ever heard, and the more I listen to it, the more this fact is reemphasized to me.
Do you want to know what this song is, this mysterious grail of audible majesty? Take a guess. What came out last year? Could it be something by Rihanna? Or perhaps something a little less monotone (as if it were possible to be more monotone than Rihanna)? Maybe that clever reiteration of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” by Gotye? Guess to your heart’s content, but this song, the best song ever to cross these ears, shamefully won’t be found on any lists. Why? Songs from film scores rarely are, and that’s precisely what the best song ever is: the “Cloud Atlas End Title” from Cloud Atlas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Now I probably just put a fork in the road of my readership, didn’t I? If you’re still reading, thanks for not veering off like some errant satellite. You’re wondering why, of all the music in the world, I would extol some random soundtrack composition that you and the majority of people haven’t even heard? What’s wrong with me? Indulge me.
The soundtrack to Cloud Atlas, a 2012 film adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell (reviewed extensively here), is stupendous. Let’s just get that out of the way. To understand why this specific track, “Cloud Atlas End Title”, is such a masterpiece though, you have to understand a bit of its background.
Cloud Atlas, both book and film, hinges on this sense of interconnectivity, a sense that people are connected deeply, beyond the illusory barriers of time and space, and the book illustrates this unity in its very layout. There is a parabolic symmetry to the way Mitchell unfolds the narrative. Six seemingly independent stories are told, all but one split in half so that the reader gets the first half of five stories in chronological order, one full story in the book’s center, and then the second halves of the first five stories in reverse order. See, parabola.
Why is all this significant in explaining “Cloud Atlas End Title” as the best song ever? Both book and film have a musical underpinning marking that interconnectivity. One of the stories is from the perspective of Robert Frobisher, an early twentieth century composer whose lifework is this unbelievably transcendental piece of music where multiple instruments, while performing their own parts, contribute to a greater whole.
I’ll let the book explain itself.
“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.” (Mitchell 445)
See, this music isn’t just an element of the story; it is a microcosmic metaphor for the story as a whole, down to the book’s very layout. So how does this all lead to “Cloud Atlas End Title” being the best song ever? It’s the precision with which Cloud Atlas‘ composers adapted this linchpin of a concept.
Turning Cloud Atlas into a film did not have to be the labor of love that it was for those involved. Certainly Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (the team of composers known collectively as ‘Pale 3’) could have turned in a mediocre score and called it a day. Instead, however, they created a piece of music that is a tier-by-tier manifestation of Cloud Atlas‘ whole raison d’être, that message of boundless connection that threads the entirety of book and film. This is the technical reason for “Cloud Atlas End Title” being the best song I have ever heard, but it falls far from encapsulating the song’s potency.
Listening to the song, from the first time I heard it to right now as I type, was a very jarring experience. There is something unspeakably nostalgic about the song. In its very first notes, there is an instant déjà-vu, a homesick longing evoked in me that I still don’t fully understand. It is a simple melody, begun on solitary piano that is quickly joined by strings and then flute, fluttering above the foundation with heartbreaking fragility like a sparrow striving against bone-crushing gravity to break through clouds and find the sun. Instrument after instrument joins the composition until the song climaxes with an amalgam that leaves the heart racing and eyes far from dry. How Tykwer and crew were able to inject the very soul of the song with Cloud Atlas‘ themes of unity and perseverance, cyclicality and spiritual yearning for “that place just out of reach”…hope, in a word…how they were able to not just compose a song that resonates those feelings, but draws them bursting forth from the listener like a broken hydrant, I have yet to really grasp.
What I do know is that there has never been a piece of music so compositionally faithful or spiritually affirming as “Cloud Atlas End Title.” It is not the knowledge of the film or book that makes the song so impacting. It had this effect on me long before I had read the book or seen the film. That is the indescribable thing about it. It is powerful beyond reason.
Scores get overlooked all the time, and many of them for due reason, but I am fully and nonhyperbolically certain that this song is deserving of the acclaim I give it here. The single best song I have ever heard, technically and emotionally, is “Cloud Atlas End Title” from Cloud Atlas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. It’s a life-changing piece of music, much like its source material in that regard.
Enough of my rambling. Go listen for yourself!