Three Soundtrack Albums and a Record Player: A Twin Peaks Music Review (Sort Of)
Right smack in the middle of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), hard-core fans started showing up at a desolate rural South Dakota property in significant enough numbers for the owner to make a public appeal for everyone to stop.1 They were there to investigate a set of GPS co-ordinates hidden on a website called The Search for the Zone, a real-world replica of the site referenced by Bill Hastings (Mathew Lillard) in Part 9 of The Return.
The real-world website was built as a publicity stunt by Rhino Records, the label releasing (some of) the soundtrack material for the show. The co-ordinates (which were hastily removed) were paired with video footage of the convenience store seen in Part 8, meeting place of the denizens of the black lodge, and one of the locations sought after by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelgänger Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan). The site also hosts three audio files, labelled “electrical_interference” (1 and 2) and “vortex,” containing various electrical hums and ambient sounds featured extensively in The Return. The presence of these tracks on a paratextual promotion for the show’s soundtrack begged the question: would the sound cues hosted on The Search for the Zone appear on the official releases? And what could the promotion’s explicit (if not entirely intentional) engagement with the relationship between sound, bodies, and geography tell us about how these overlapping concerns play out within the show?
As it happens, the sound design elements featured on The Search for the Zone are not present on the two Rhino soundtrack releases: one for the music presented as live performances in the Roadhouse sequences, and one for Angelo Badalamenti’s original score and additional compilation material. To hear the tracks from the website, created by Lynch’s long-time collaborator Dean Hurley, you need to pick up his own album, Anthology Resource Vol. 1 , released independently by Sacred Bones. Intriguingly, this release pattern mirrors Lynch’s own segregation of auditory materials within the show, emphasizing the newly disparate geographies and timelines presented in The Return and the immense difficulties with which characters move between them.2 The narrative compartmentalization of bodies within disparate geographies, and the show’s stern commitment to belabouring their separation for as long as possible, marks a departure for Lynch. Where much of The Return has been appropriately characterized as retrospective of Lynch’s entire body of work, it is also a venture into new territories that may be no less resolvable within an auteurist framework than the myriad narrative threads left loose by series’ end.
Prior to The Return, Lynch has demonstrated a career-long commitment to an “integrated” approach to sound design (Greene and Kulezcic-Wilson, 2016). As early as Eraserhead (1977), Lynch adopted holistic sound mixing practices that blurred the boundaries between music, speech, and sound effects, allowing elements from each to trespass on each other’s territories. The 1982 soundtrack album followed suit. Produced by Lynch and his collaborator Alan Splet, the LP eschewed the conventional use of the term “soundtrack” to mean “score” or “compilation music” in favour of side-long tracks that carried listeners through the film’s now legendary sonic environments in which industrial sounds, source music, and vocalizations mingled inseparably.
In The Return, on the other hand, we find exaggerated de-integrations of the show’s sound elements: Badalamenti’s score is sparse and seldom heard; The Roadhouse serves as structural container for the bulk of the series’ source music; and long passages are left to Hurley and Lynch’s sound design treatments alone. And so it goes for the album releases, a de-integrated approach that mirrors the show’s narrative compartmentalization: just as the series itself stands as an unravelling of the coherency found in the original Twin Peaks (1989-91), the driving force of The Return is the question of where and when the disparate narrative threads and their associated characters will meet, if ever. The answer is offered as clearly on the soundtracks as anywhere else: the three albums form distinct geographical spaces, the connections between which are as hard to find within their separate spaces as the same material is within the show itself.
The Return emphasizes its sonic de-integration right from the start. In Part 1, the Fireman (Carel Struycken) tells Cooper to “listen to the sounds” emanating from the old gramophone horn in his living room. Back when The Fireman was known as The Giant, his clues to Cooper were cues to discover their relationship to the world of the narrative, and they delivered in relatively short order as smiling bags, hungry horses, and missing rings materialized within a handful of episodes. The sounds from the Fireman’s gramophone, on the other hand, are not explicitly heard again until Part 17 when Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) disappears as Cooper leads her out of original footage from Fire Walk With Me and away from the destiny documented in that film. The sound thus literally marks Laura’s de-integration from the fabric of the original series’ narrative and sent towards a new life to be discovered in the finale, where the The Fireman’s other clues about remembering “430” and “Richard and Linda” finally play out as well. But the revelations to which these clues point only pose more questions in the end. As with so many other expectations that The Return sets up in relation to the original series, the Fireman’s prompts here are a ruse; fans are incited to listen deep for an integration of The Fireman’s clues into the fabric of the narrative (like the Reddit guy who argued that the gramophone sounds were a processed version of the slot machine levers that Cooper has so much luck with in Part 3), only to be left hanging in isolation until the very end. Between the two iterations of The Fireman’s gramophone sounds we follow Cooper on a protracted transgression of spaces as he travels in search of impossible connections. The figure of the gramophone, then, is a symbol of the narrative break between the original series and The Return, and of the distinct separation between the various different geographies that define Cooper’s story more than what lay within any one of them. As I will argue at the end of this essay, however, phonography also lies at the very core of The Return‘s engagement with Twin Peaks as a whole, a connection to the past that functions only by its own severance.
Trespassers on the Threshold
It is evocative that promotion for the soundtrack recordings of a fictional show could yield complaints of trespassing in the world outside. The very idea of “trespassing” serves as a useful metaphor for thinking about Lynch’s approach to delineating the boundaries of cinematic space. Lynch’s soundtracks, in particular, have always emphasized the geographies that his characters inhabit, articulating passages into territories not their own, often through transgressions of the body.
Across Lynch’s work, passages of corporeal transgression are frequently announced by the presence of technologies of sound reproduction and transmission. Mulholland Drive (2001) offers the least subtle example when Club Silencio’s magician (Richard Green) lectures us on the illusory nature of live sound, powerfully illustrated by Rebekah Del Rio as she collapses in the middle of a stunning Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The sound of her voice continues as she’s dragged unconscious off the stage, a scene that sends Betty (Naomi Watts) into a fit of convulsions as she listens, prefiguring the dramatic reconfiguration of the narrative in the film’s final act. It is as though the illusion offered by lip-synching is so powerful that when its mechanics are laid bare it disrupts the very fabrics of space, time, and identity.
Ironically, such a debate opened up after Rebekah Del Rio appeared in The Roadhouse in Part 10 of The Return to sing a beautiful version of her collaboration with Lynch and Badalamenti entitled “No Stars.” The online fan communities immediately flared up with expressions of disappointment over her apparent use of Autotune, the pitch correction software that many producers employ as much for its aesthetic side-effects as for attempts to smooth over vocal imperfections. Many couldn’t hear the Autotune in this case, while others said it was so awful they couldn’t stand to listen to the song. Some actually pointed to Del Rio’s performance in Mulholland Drive as an example of how wonderfully she can sing without technological enhancement, and that the production choices on her appearance in The Return were a betrayal of her natural talent. Really people? There seems to be a missed point in here somewhere. Perhaps the Club Silencio sequence isn’t as belaboured in its obviousness as it first appeared to me. But I digress…
Hysterical reactions to technological treatments of human expression harken back to early 20th Century Spiritualism’s supernatural explanations for technology’s ability to split sound from the body.3 For Lynch, such bodily transgression often leads to trespassing upon other planes of existence. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) hears a man on his home intercom informing him that “Dick Laurent is Dead,” a voice suggested to be his own when we see him deliver this message through that same intercom at the end of the film (and the two iterations of the line are, in fact, both recordings made by Bill Pullman). Madison is simultaneously speaking and listening through this sound transmission device on either side of its portal through the wall of his house, and the path to this spatial conflation between both ends of the film involves Madison’s violent metamorphosis into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Ghetty) through the middle. Lynch’s on-screen sound technologies frequently provide passage to other worlds where, just as frequently, characters making the journey have their identities challenged.
Although Lynch demonstrates a fascination for sound technologies of all kinds, record players have a special place within his oeuvre. In Eraserhead (1977), Henry’s (Jack Nance) turntable – a model already decades old for the 1970s, one factor in the indeterminate time period in which the film takes place – serves on the surface as a tool through which he can enjoy his Fats Waller music after a long day at the printing factory. But the film’s slippage between worlds comes at the record’s end, when the crackling loop takes over, joining the mechanical chorus of repeating industrial sounds in Henry’s apartment. It is in this sonic environment that he gazes into the radiator where he finds a stage, not unlike that in The Roadhouse, where a singer (Laurel Near) assures him that, “In heaven, everything is fine.”4 Ultimately the vinyl’s repeating end-groove forms one thread of an acoustic fabric in which Henry finally gives in to the maddening taunts of his strange baby’s cackling in the dark. He cuts its bandages, allowing its organs to splay across the room as the electricity goes wild, setting Henry free to join the Lady in the Radiator in a blast of triumphant light sucked straight out of the wiring of his building, which promptly goes dark. From Lynch’s very first feature film, then, violence to the body is scored by the material sounds of phonography and its electrical sustenance, allowing passage to an alternate plane of existence.
Phonograph turntables have also been central to Twin Peaks since the beginning. In Episode 5 of the original series, when Cooper finds the cabin in the woods where Laura Palmer spent time on the night of her death, a record player with an automatic repeat function has been playing Julee Cruise’s “Into the Night” on a continuous loop ever since. Cooper lifts the needle up and repeats a line that the Little Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) told him in a dream: “And there is always music in the air.” Here Cooper gestures toward a recurring feature of turntable presence in the Twin Peaks universe, which is as much about disrupting the design function of the technology as it is about filling the air with music. In Episode 2, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) dances with a picture of his daughter, his own circular spinning mirroring the motion of the record playing Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” on the living room turntable. The picture is smashed in a struggle with his wife Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) who then attacks the turntable in frustration, sending the needle scratching loudly across the vinyl surface as Leland rubs his bloodied hand over the bare photo. This scene then sets up the violence of Episode 14 wherein Leland is revealed as the killer – apparently inhabited by a possessing spirit called Bob (Frank Silva) – as he murders Laura’s look-alike cousin Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee). Maddy’s murder is introduced with close-up shots of the Palmer’s turntable locked in a looping end-groove, dissolving in and out of images of The Giant appearing on stage at The Roadhouse to warn Cooper: “It is happening again. It is happening again.”
Bodily transgression through the material qualities of phonography are on display once again in Part 8 of The Return. The track entitled “electrical_interference_2” on The Search for the Zone website is easily identifiable as the soundscape treatment first heard when the Woodsman (Robert Broski) lands in the New Mexico desert in 1956 (which the closed captioning on the CraveTV stream labels as “brooding atmospheric music” with “ominous scratching noise”). The “scratching noise” is what sets this treatment of electrical sound apart from the myriad others across the series, later echoed by the sound of crackling vinyl when the Woodsman commandeers the DJ booth of the KPJK radio station, sending the needle skidding across a spinning record to land in a repeating groove that blends with radio static as we watch confused listeners across town reacting to the interruption of the musical broadcast. This looping then shifts to the Woodsman’s repeating poem, casting a spell on a young girl (Tikaeni Faircrest) who opens her mouth to become host to a winged reptilian creature that hatched from an egg in the desert, apparently one spawn (along with Bob) of the monstrous Judy during the fallout of the Trinity nuclear blast in White Sands, New Mexico, in the summer of 1945. This is a violation of her body, a trespass upon corporeal grounds, perfectly in keeping with the themes of rape, incest, and murder that lay at the core of the Twin Peaks mythology. And the electrical interference cue returns over an image of the girl lying asleep as the end credits roll.5
There seems little that can be done about the repetitive insistence of the crimes associated with Bob and Judy, for which the turntable’s materiality – the interruption of recorded musical content to reveal the sound of the medium itself – acts as both metaphor and gateway. What is most remarkable in these instances of turntable presence in Twin Peaks is how the otherworldly quality of the medium is tied specifically to its materiality. This is an intriguing inversion of hi-fi culture’s emphasis on the notion of sonic “transparency” that invites listeners to transcend the space of their living rooms into the performance venue in which the recording was made. For Lynch, it is the revelation of sound technology’s material qualities – those that hi-fi culture attempts to banish from consciousness, like surface noise on vinyl and electrical buzzing from its amplification – that allows passage between worlds, folding spaces onto each other like the Guild Navigators in Dune (1984).
In the digital age, the materiality of the record player is often fetishized as an object of nostalgia, a visual source for music that has become less visible within our new formats. Lynch’s early turntables were not set in a period context, though both Henry and the Palmers owned units that were much older than the settings of the films. Record players disappeared from Lynch’s films after Twin Peaks until he entered his digital phase with Inland Empire (2006). But then, in each successive turntable appearance, from Lady Blue Shanghai (2010) to The Return, Lynch’s turntables have been connected to a more specific period context. This is new for Lynch, whose previous films regularly evoked styles from decades past but were never explicitly framed as period pieces (with The Elephant Man (1980) being the notable exception).
In these later films, record players push Lynch’s interest in overlapping planes of spatial existence into the realm of time. In Lady Blue Shanghai, for example, Marion Cotillard’s unnamed character arrives at her present-day Shanghai hotel room to find a vintage 78rpm turntable blasting music from the 1920s. She rips the needle out of its groove, an action that opens up a vision of the past where she experiences the memory of a lost lover.
Inland Empire amplifies Lynch’s treatment of spatiotemporal slippage considerably. The film opens with a close-up of a gramophone needle dragging across a spinning disc. Lit with stroboscopic effects, this is Lynch’s most elaborate visual treatment of a turntable to date, recalling the pyrotechnic dance of spinning records in Germaine Dulac’s gorgeous Disque 957 (1929). Through the crackle a voice emerges to announce “the longest running radio play in history,” which serves as set-up for a scene introducing us to a “lost girl” (Karolina Gruszka) trapped in cycles of physical violence within a Polish prostitution enterprise. Later, when actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) gets lost in her own Hollywood film set, she exits into the Poland of an earlier time. The transition is mediated by a return of the gramophone shots seen at the film’s opening, now with Nikki’s face superimposed over the black shellac disc as she listens to the “lost girl” explain the secret of seeing through the void. “You need to burn a hole through the silk with the cigarette, and look through the hole,” she says, just as the cigarette and the gramophone needle are superimposed on the image track in a graphic match. Here the connection between the turntable technology and the portal to another world is made visually specific.
The relationship between old-world Europe and the violence inherent in its colonization of North America is manifested through Nikki’s experience of the incongruity of living across different histories, a spatiotemporal loop that leads to her own cycles of violent death and shining rebirth. As Liz Greene points out, this narrative simultaneity is matched by a conflation of old-school technological presence like the gramophone and the new aesthetic qualities of Lynch’s experimentation with digital image capture (2012, 102). Caught between worlds, both narrative and formal, Nikki Grace suffers no small psychological distress, and ultimately ends up being stabbed by the jilted wife of her Hollywood scene-partner and bleeding out on the street among the homeless on Hollywood boulevard. Nikki serves as yet another of Lynch’s characters to suffer bodily transgression connected directly to a slippage between spaces mediated by phonograph technology. Here Lynch ties this violence directly to a critique – both in content and production context – of the Hollywood system through which he struggled for so long and from which Inland Empire marked his triumphant escape – for all time, we thought, until the unlikely return of Twin Peaks 11 years later.
Part 8 of The Return falls roughly midway through the series and, while it stands as an aberration from the rest of the series on many levels, it also offered some hope that formal threads might reward following through to the end of the series. We see The Fireman and his gramophone again, for one, now playing a Lynch/Hurley collaboration entitled “Slow 30s Room,” released on the Rhino score album, in the middle of a single side dedicated to Part 8 – an anomaly on the albums as well. This side is the most narratively coherent of the new soundtrack release material, opening with Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” then “Slow 30s Room” leading into “The Fireman,” one of the sparse original contributions from Angelo Badalamenti this season. As a single side of vinyl, it brings all the domains of the soundtrack together on one surface: score, compilation material, and sound design – yet they remain as distinct tracks even so. And there are two significant omissions: “My Prayer,” by The Platters, the single playing at KPJK radio station when the Woodsman commandeers the DJ booth and which later accompanies the sexual encounter between Cooper and Diane (or is it Richard and Linda?) in Part 18. This track appears on the Roadhouse album, though it was never played there. The other omission is “electrical_interference_2,” elements of which found their way into “Electricity 1” and “Electricity 2” on Hurley’s Anthology album. Like “My Prayer,” these “electricity” elements serve as recurrent motif material for the second half of The Return.
The “electricity” sound cues are first heard early in the series, scoring Cooper’s passage through the electrical socket into Dougie Jones’ realm in Part 3. After their connection to the Woodsman’s interference with sound technologies in Part 8, these sounds are clearly associated with transdimensional passages for the duration of the series. They are coupled with shots of electrical wires that precede both appearances of the vortex near Jack Rabbit’s Palace in Parts 15 and 17, and they bookend Mr. C’s visit to the convenience store in Part 15. A very similar treatment scores Cooper and Diane’s (Laura Dern) crossing over the threshold at mile 430 in Part 18 as they embark on another leg of their endless road trip to hunt down the mysterious Judy, and pops up one last time with a shot of pole 6, first seen in Fire Walk With Me in the Fat Trout Trailer Park, now outside the house of Laura Palmer living as Carrie Page in Odessa. While the show refuses to answer key questions around these events, the use of the “electricity” sound cues applies the material qualities of electrical sound transmission, directly associated with the Woodsman’s corporeal violence, to disruptions in space, time, and ultimately identity.
Most tellingly, however, is that an “electricity” cue pops up again in the final shot of Part 16 when Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) apparently “wakes up” from a fantasy in which she replicated the beloved “Audrey’s Dance” for an adoring audience at The Roadhouse, perhaps The Return’s strongest pushback against nostalgic revelry. This track does not appear on the Roadhouse album, slotting instead at the end of the score release – probably because the Badalamenti compositions needed to be grouped together for ease of copyright clearance, but suggestively because Audrey was likely never in the Roadhouse to begin with. Audrey’s dance, followed by her mirror shot, is the last time we see this especially beloved original character whose storyline is the least developed of all the major returning players to populate the new series. Scoring this unresolved cliffhanger with the “electricity” cue connects her narrative to the spatiotemporal slippages through which the Coopers have been sliding all season long. Perhaps this is Lynch and Frost’s answer to fan demand that we see these two finally get together. At the same time, there is no resolution for Audrey, whose fate is a mystery even by the standards of a show that ends by renaming its main character and sending him into a world he no longer recognizes. As such, the “electricity” cue heralds a mode of transmission that goes nowhere, a motif that prompts recognition of connections that do not complete their circuits. Or, perhaps more to the point, they function ONLY to complete their circuits, offering looping circularity at the expense of linear closure.
The Palmer Loop
Lynch extends the sphere of circularity, looping, and repetitions through a variety of other elements across Twin Peaks: The Return. Transdimensional vortices that recall the spiral configuration of a record’s groove function as gateways to the domain of The Fireman, his collaborator Seniorita Dido (Joy Nash), and their gramophone playing the endlessly skipping “Slow 30’s Room” while they await history to sound its alarms. After the eyeless woman Naido (Nae) is discovered in the woods around Twin Peaks below one such vortex, she is brought to the local prison for safe-keeping where the town drunk (Jay Aaseng) parrots her otherworldly vocalizations in a mesmerizing interplay of source and echo. Meanwhile Cooper (living the life of Dougie Jones) speaks only by repeating key words from the last sentences spoken to him, and his boy Sonny-Jim (Pierce Gagnon) runs a looping circuit on his new gym set in the back yard while a music box runs through its endlessly repeating tune.
And then there’s Sarah Palmer watching the continuously repeating segment of an old boxing match at home on her TV, each reiteration announced by an emphatic electrical glitching sound. We don’t see the Palmer turntable in The Return, but its looping effect seems to have taken hold of the very fabric of the space within that house, and of the town at large. We see Sarah for the last time in Part 17, smashing the high school portrait of her daughter to pieces with a vodka bottle, wailing in anguish. This scene is scored with a repeating sound reminiscent of the Palmers’ turntable locked in the end groove that scored who knows how many of Leland’s domestic aggressions, while her screams might very well be incorporating audio tracks from the original series. This is, perhaps, the single most excruciating scene in all of The Return, recalling Sarah’s struggle with Leland over the same picture in Episode 2 that ended with her swiping the record player’s tone-arm off of its groove as she screams at Leland, “What is happening in this house?” The auditory callbacks of both the looping turntable and Sarah’s blood curdling vocalizations suggest both the violence of Sarah’s trauma over Laura’s death and that, perhaps, she was complicit all along. Or that she is becoming complicit in the new reality that will reshape her daughter’s fate. Is Sarah the girl from Part 8 who played host to Judy’s spawn as the Woodsman recited his poem over the crackle of the KPJK turntable? This would close the circle nicely, but is something we cannot know. But one thing is certain: this scene cements Lynch and Frost’s commitment to deep engagement with the heart of the Twin Peaks universe, taking us back to the most intimate moments of the Palmers’ grief while smashing that history to pieces. By integrating with its source material, The Return unravels the fabric of this material to leave us hanging by a thread.
We won’t see Sarah Palmer again, but we’ll hear her one last time before the show is done. In the harrowing final scene of Part 18, Cooper shows up at the Palmer house with a woman he believes is Laura, now living out a different identity in Odessa, Texas following the erasure of her murder through the FBI Agent’s intervention into past events (and literal interaction with footage from the original pilot and Fire Walk With Me). But Sarah isn’t home. In fact, it seems that she was never there to begin with. Or perhaps not yet. At least, not until we hear an echo of her voice hollering, “Laura!” from somewhere inside. The sound of Sarah’s voice recalls the early moments of the original Twin Peaks pilot as she races through the house frantically looking for her missing daughter. Here the voice is distorted, as it is in the reiterations of similar auditory samples later in the series and prequel film where they are used over ominous shots of the infamous ceiling fan associated with the transgression of Laura’s body within the pretended safety of domestic space. And so the closing scene of The Return loops back to the genesis of the show through the repetition of a sound cue. But nobody can go home again, no matter how much time has passed (or in which direction). Laura screams and the house lights go dark, just as Henry’s apartment went dark after he cut loose his own offspring from the fabric of its constraint.
You can listen to Henry’s release on the Eraserhead soundtrack album, but nothing of Sarah Palmer’s own finale is present on any of the three soundtrack releases for The Return. This is an omission that marks the show’s most insistent act of de-integrating key sonic material from any sense of a holistic enterprise. With the final looping gesture that ends The Return Lynch presents his audience with a meditation on the very concept of the loop itself. We might think back to Inland Empire and the recurrence of the line, “Look at me and tell me that you’ve known me before,” spoken by several characters across the film. Kate Rennebohm points to this line as a guide to the mysteries of The Return, “an unnerving question that hits at both our insatiable appetite for the familiar and our discomfort with the new” (2017, 64). This simultaneity of the familiar and the strange, one of the most salient characteristics in play across all of Lynch’s work, is also the challenge offered by Lynch’s use of loops as narrative and aesthetic devices: to invite reconsideration of material already encountered, and to do so repeatedly with attention to its continually changing status even as it remains always the same. Lynch places us on the surface of the record, stuck forever in the end-groove but without allowing us to slip through the hole in the middle. This is not a connective strategy, like the portals that draw so many of Lynch’s characters and worlds together. Instead we reside on the material surface itself, reconfiguring our understanding of the same material with each successive pass. This is how The Return functions, made explicit by the repurposing of the footage from the original series and film. While we listen and know that we’ve heard these sounds before, we look at our beloved characters and know them no longer, the geography of their bodies now marked by trespassing realities from other times and places.
Note: A shorter version of this essay was first published in french translation for 24 Images No. 184 (October 2017).
Greene, Liz. 2012. Bringing Vinyl into the Digital Domain: Aesthetics in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). The New Soundtrack 2(2): 97-111.
Greene, Liz and Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, eds. 2016. The Palgrave Handbook to Music and Sound Design in Screen Media: Integrated Soundtracks. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Rennebohm, Kate. 2017. You Can’t Go Home Again: Twin Peaks: The Return. Cinemascope 71 (summer): 62-64.