With some albums, the backstory gives some insight or perspective for which to take in the piece. For renowned producer Danger Mouse’s collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi on Rome, the backstory is essential for taking in the piece. Not that the album wouldn’t be enjoyable without the knowledge that is was a five-years-in-the-making record to serve as a tribute to the beloved Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and his “spaghetti western” work of the 1960s, nor that many of the musicians (not Jack White or Norah Jones) had worked with Morricone in the past. It is just that Rome is very much an album built towards an accomplishment, with an end-game scenario in sight, and the success of the album when measured in this rubric is undoubtable. But, it begs the question of whether Rome can be more than merely a successful genre album?
Or, concept album, though the inclination is to avoid using this term, as Danger Mouse has noted that there is not narrative running through Rome. But, by a more broad definition of concept album, Rome clearly fits the bill. And though there may not be a narrative to follow, where the album finds its greatest success is with the abstract elements, giving each listener a chance to paint their own cinematic portrait while listening (which Chris Milk’s interactive video for “Black” plays into). “Theme Of Rome” is clearly an opening credits-type of number, but is it of a man riding his horse through the vacant plains, or is it long pans through empty rooms of a home? The emotion is all implied, but the imagery is often left up to the audience.
Luckily, we have some guides along the way in White and Jones. Picking perhaps the two most distinctive vocalists of our current musical age is a bold decision and not without its rewards, as each brings a bit of themselves to their respective songs. Though the backing of “The Rose With A Broken Neck” features choral singers, strings, and the subtle production quirks that give it the necessary retro vibe, White’s voice is unmistakable and the song comes of as a new avenue to hear his distinctive vocal traits, rather than him simply falling into line to play an anonymous part. Jones is similarly used, as her songs falling into a similar tempo, coming off as relaxed and breezy, not far away from her typical recorded material, though with an unquestionable rise in indie cred. Ultimately, all the desperation in White’s vocals are balanced with a distinct sexiness in Jones’, and the songs on which they appear become focal points of the album; little moments to look forward to between abstract instrumentals.
That being said, even the addition of pop icons to the Rome album can’t allow it to rise above its previously stated goals. There is little, if nothing, wrong with Rome, but rather, it is limited by the confines it sets up for itself. Danger Mouse has hinted at the possibility of turning the record into a film or a large-scale concert, which is probably where it belongs, with added visuals to the cinematic scope of the project. As just a record, it can feel almost incomplete, like too much freedom is left to the listener to wade through the material. And while it might seem disrespectful to look at five years’ worth of work and say “almost, but a little more needs to be done,” it just depends on if the desire on the part of Danger Mouse and Luppi is to elevate Rome to something beyond their project, because though they have succeeded mightily with their goals, they have clearly hit the limit at what the genre allows.
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