I haven’t had a chance to see The Hunger Games, the newest big adaptation of young adult fiction, but at least from marketing, it seems to want to be the sweet spot between the Harry Potter and Twlight franchises, at least in tone. From what I’ve seen, the series wants to hit the brooding tone of Twlight, but without the bloated sense of self-importance, and the in-universe marketing of Harry Potter.
And Songs From District 12 strikes me as wanting that same balance. Looking down the list, the album leaves the same moody taste as any of the surprisingly quality Twlight soundtracks, but seems to have a stronger conceptual tie than “What are the kids listening to these days?” Going off any of the theoretical Hunger Games maps, District 12 is placed right in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, where American folk has its roots. Calling the soundtrack Songs from District 12 and Beyond is deathly accurate; folk dominates the album, but the oppressive, dark air of dystopia hangs all over these songs.
The ideas merge strongest on opener “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire, which is built lyrically in Biblical turns (the story of Abraham) and features acoustic guitars, but also has a martial drumbeat. After that, the ideas split off to varying degrees, with the folk getting stronger representation than everything else. Contributions from The Secret Sisters, Neko Case, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Punch Brothers are basic meat and potatoes acoustic folk/Americana tunes, but they make for great listening when you want something calm. Carolina Chocolate Drops’ song “Daughter’s Lament”, is of particular note; hearing an a capella spiritual sing about mockingjays is disarming, and really enhances the Hunger Games world.
But the bigger names do most of the album’s heavy lifting. The first single, “Safe & Sound” by Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars, is still one of the more striking songs from the project. The warm melody and acoustic guitars sound truly safe and sound against the sparseness of the other instruments, and the harmonies added by The Civil Wars make for a beautiful last minute. As mentioned earlier, Arcade Fire’s “Abraham’s Daughter” kicks the door in. Mirana Lambert goes old-time country on “Run Daddy Run”, and The Decemberists add a bit of rollicking energy with “One Engine”. On their own on “Kingdom Come”, The Civil Wars create a song filled with passion and heartbreak.
The two most surprising entries, though, come from the most bizarre contributors: Kid Cudi and Maroon 5. The former has “The Ruler and the Killer”, a metallic, riff-laden cut filled with tribal tom tom beats and snarling from a surprisingly alert Cudi. If the bulk of the songs on Songs From District 12 are from the titular rustic but charming district, “The Ruler and the Killer” reminds us that the ruthlessly technological Capitol is still looming. It’s one of the few songs here that sounds truly dystopian. Meanwhile, Maroon 5’s “Come Away to the Water” is probably the most un-Maroon 5 song that Maroon 5 has ever written. It fits in almost too comfortably with the fingerpicking, gentle drumming, boy/girl harmonizing songs found elsewhere on the soundtrack, but then again, a typical Maroon 5 track would be blatantly out of place (despite this, though, “Come Away to the Water” still has some nice Maroon 5 bounce to it).
Songs From District 12‘s biggest enemy is probably its own length. 16 songs long with an average length pushing 4 minutes, the album meanders in the woods of District 12 a bit too much for its own good. None of the songs are bad, per se, but some lean hard on folksie balladry for a free pass. Even with death and darkness on all sides, The Hunger Games is a story about people who continue on, and that same sense of warmth pervades the otherwise dark passages. It’s sort of a redemptive charm, and makes for great meditative listening. Four out of five stars.
tl;dr: Teens killing each other? Pass me the acoustic guitar, 4/5.