The first and most important thing about the soundtrack to David Lynch’s surreal 1977 cult film masterpiece is that it’s not like any other soundtrack in your collection. This is no “music from and inspired by” set and it doesn’t gather orchestral cues from the film’s score. Eraserhead is a sound track (two words) in the literal sense. It contains 38 minutes of the sound that accompanies the 89-minute film’s picture. When you are listening to this LP, you are hearing a a movie. And it works, because Lynch and his late collaborator, Alan Splet, had a rare ear for the immersive and emotional possibilities of sound. The sound design in Lynch’s films is consistently brilliant, brimming with details that enhance the mood and further the narrative. And here on Eraserhead– Lynch’s first feature, most personal film, and in many ways the strangest and most evocative movie he ever made– his and Splet’s aural genius was already fully formed. Working with the analog technology available in the 1970s, they created a richly textured and evocative world.
The narrative details of Lynch’s movie aren’t essential to this set, but they do help to put the album into context. Eraserhead tells the story of Henry Spencer, a strange and quiet man with bushy hair who goes about his business in a parallel universe with an skewed relationship to our own reality. The streets in Henry’s neighborhood are empty and dark, but you can hear dogs barking in the distance and you feel like something unpleasant might be lurking around every corner. Somewhere out of sight, enormous boilers and blast furnaces are constantly churning, belching soot into the sky and pushing tendrils of steam into cramped one-room apartments. It’s a lonely, menacing place, modeled in part from Lynch’s memories of his time living in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. Eventually, Henry finds that his girlfriend Mary has given birth to…what, exactly, is never clear. “They’re still not sure it is a baby!”, she cries at one point on the soundtrack. Lynch and Splet render this setting with a varied mix of creaks, rumbles, hisses, and roars. Theirs is a place of polluting industry, clacking trains, dangerous electrical whirrs, and a screaming infant from the unknown.
Purely as a listening experience, you could file Eraserhead next to the ice cold drift of Thomas Köner’s Permafrost, the tape-heavy pieces found on the first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, the subliminal voice and sound-effect rumble of Robert Ashely’s Automatic Writing, and the fuzzed-out radio transmissions of Music for Nitrous Oxide-era Stars of the Lid. Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” channels a comparable nightmare, the swampiest and most decayed bits of Brian Eno’s On Land might be found somewhere inside this world, and you could imagine the metallic drones of Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith leaking out of Henry’s floorboards. Eraserhead is dark ambient, in other words, a few years before that term had come into wide use. And despite its origins as the sound component of a film, it works terrifically well as music, provided your definition extends to the artists mentioned above. You’ll hear some funny dialog about things like “man-made chickens” here and there, delivered in that distinctively Lynchian sing-songy deadpan. But the album as a whole is something you sink into, a shadowy vision of a frightening place.
Beyond the machines and industry, two more traditionally musical elements are found on the album. One recurring motif is the use of solo organ pieces from the 1930s played by Harlem jazz legend Fats Waller. The creaking organ tones, played by a man from years ago on a wheezing mechanical device, form a natural complement to the sound effects; they cycle in and out, bringing to mind a cracked memory of another time or place that never quite comes into the focus. And then there is the song “In Heaven”, sung in the movie by a tiny woman with disfiguring acne who lives in Henry’s radiator and serves for him as a source of warmth and comfort. “In Heaven” developed a life of its own outside of Eraserhead, most famously in the indie rock world when it was covered first by the Pixies and then, later, when incorporated into Modest Mouse’s single “Workin’ on Leavin’ the Livin’”.
”In Heaven” still fascinates because of its ambiguity. It’s both deeply creepy and somehow a little bit uplifting, never quite sure if it’s celebrating life or death. On this vinyl reissue from Sacred Bones, it’s also included as a 7″, the flip side of which is an instrumental piece in a similar style laid out by “In Heaven”‘s composer, Peter Ivers. Taken all together, this beautifully packaged reissue is a thorough and complete presentation of Lynch and Splet’s soundworld, complete with photos and stills from the film set on heavy card stock. It takes something moving and important that is in danger of being lost and bring it to a new audience, which is exactly what a reissue should do. And there’s something reassuring about knowing that Lynch’s “haunting dream of dark and disturbing things” lives on, finding people willing to put it on the turntable and make their own pictures.