The solo career of Radiohead‘s quiet MVP, Jonny Greenwood, couples adventurous ambition with the modesty of a reluctant frontman. In soundtrack work for director Paul Thomas Anderson — (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) — and other directors (Bodysong, Norwegian Wood), the guitarist/keyboardist/programmer sculpted evocative instrumental tracks in accordance with the films’ needs. The work veered from the harsh bursts of cacophony atop There Will Be Blood‘s drones to the knotty electronica classical of Bodysong.
Technically, Junun is also a Paul Thomas Anderson soundtrack. The director filmed the album sessions in Rajasthan, India’s Mehrangarh Fort. In attendance were Greenwood, Israeli composer of Indian classical music, Shye Ben Tzur, the Rajasthan Express (a sprawling collective of expert traditional Indian music players), and perennial Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (who sometimes pulled camera duty). The film is loose, intimate, brief and almost without speech, which seemingly reverses the Anderson-Greenwood relationship. Where Greenwood’s work was once subservient to Anderson’s images and rhythm, the film Junun is dedicated to Rajasthan Express’ music.
The music is warm, enveloping and hypnotic: a set of circling grooves of dense, clicking percussion (hand drums such as the dholak and doubled nagara; small, finger-operated cymbal clappers called khartal), supporting the melodies of an ebullient horn section and the yearning, intertwined vocals of Qawwali singers, the Sufi devotional music that first obsessed Shye Ben Tzur and then Greenwood. (For his part, Greenwood plays a small sprawl of instruments, including his beloved Ondes-Martenot.) The Israeli composer’s songs are sometimes sung in Urdu, which is the language of much traditional Qawwali music, and sometimes in Hebrew, which isn’t.
The album’s complicated cross-pollination — Sufi by way of Judaism, by way of electronica-tinged Brit rock — helps keep the tone far from dilettantish exoticism. This isn’t an album of Indian music with a famous Western name attached, or a Graceland-style collection of pop-rock songs built atop another continent’s forms and instrumentation. It’s a genuinely weird album, the result of a three-way collision that makes such long grooves as “Kalandar” sound jazzy and restless while brief; circling chants like “Roked” sound strangely like Primal Scream. “Junun Brass” is a dramatic, smoky horn theme that eventually summons a titanic roll of percussion. “There Are Birds in the Echo Chamber” is exactly what it sounds like: 30 seconds of distant music accompanied by busy tweeting from avian guests. (It’s not the first time you’ve heard them — earlier tracks feature the occasional chirp — but it’s the first time they take the lead.) It’s moving and somehow central: A moment when the musician’s weird, joyous music — already mixing up three continents and two religions — throws in another species. Good vibes.