Are you surprised that we’re talking about this album, now? You shouldn’t be!
Plenty of people have noted how awesome this soundtrack is, and the fact that it has spawned so many remix albums in its wake is proof of it. But, I think it’s real success is the integration with the game’s narrative and play.
Not many games go out of their way to create a distinct musical “theme” which recurs through the player’s experience. L. A. Noire, for example, has a distinct trumpet/horn theme that recurs continually as you travel through the world, but the problem is that these theme aren’t distinctive to a particular event. They tend to re-use the themes over and over again, and not in a good way! Because the experience isn’t diverse, the music becomes repetitive, and simply becomes part of the background rather than a distinct entity in itself.
Although I wouldn’t quite call NieR’s soundtrack “impressionist”, like Masashi Hamazau’s work, NieR tries to continually bring the same themes to mind over, and over, and over again for the most pivotal moments of the soundtrack. Those that aren’t, on the other hand, gain their own unique themes to compensate, making them memorable pieces all their own. It’s as much a storytelling trope as it is a musical device; it allows you to link events with places in the game, and express certain emotions that are difficult to express otherwise.
Perhaps the human element of NieR’s soundtrack strikes most players first. Just about every piece in the entire soundtrack contains vocals of varying degrees, from chants to whispers to just plain old singing. Many are sung in made-up languages, which are supposed to represent the language of NieR’s world. They make NieR’s environment, at times, an utterly alien wasteland (as in the opener, “Snow in Summer”), or a comforting voice amid a vast and untamed wilderness of the apocalypse (as in “Hills of Radiant Winds”). Each one utterly captures the mood of the situation or the environment perfectly, even more than Secret of Mana’s soundtrack. While not always a catchy soundtrack as the former, it certainly has its own quality about it that makes it relistenable and enjoyable.
Actually, for my own part, I have a hard time listening to the album at times. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it; sometimes, though, the emotional connection to certain events in the game is so strong that I just have to stop. Song of the Ancients, in all its variations, does this to me; it’s beautiful, incomprehensible, and beautifully desolate with its delicate guitar work and Emi Evans’ subtle vocal performance. Dispossesion does much the same, except we gain a piano instead of a stringed instrument, though with much the same effect. Video game musical has this indelible interactivity; it invites you into the world of the developers, immersing you in the virtual world presented before you.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t action-packed moments on this soundtrack; using a distinct sound that I can only recognize as some kind of primal tribal beat, “Blu-bird” has to be one of the creepiest tracks in the whole game, with its oddly out of key vocals and guttural modulated chants. “The Dark Colossus Destroys All”, on the other hand, drives the player towards an epic battle leading to the game’s second half.
Kaine’s tracks, though, really strike that chord of emotion; as I’ve discussed previously, she’s a tortured soul in mind and body, and these tracks represent that sadness in all its beautiful sorrow. Emil gets the same treatment, although his themes give a bit more drive and force, as the events that unfold in the game show us. It’s as representative of the story as any other element of the game; full of hope, but equally full of sorrow. It’s quite beautiful, a grieving melody, though not at all like a funeral dirge. Instead, they rejoice in life at the same time as they represent death.
This odd contradiction of human existence isn’t that far from what we commonly experience, still. I’ve always found it interesting that Romans 12 tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and grieve with those who grieve; sadness and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive things in this world. They are all part of the human experience, and why shouldn’t great music reflect that? As Ecclesiastes 7 says:
And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. 2 It is better to go to a house of mourning Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, For when a face is sad a heart may be happy. 4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.
Ecclesiates always states the cycle of life, that things happen in their time and season. NieR, then, is a perfect display of this bizarre contrast and dichotomy. It’s an indelible part of Christianity; we know that all must die a physical death, but that’s never the end for anyone. There is sorrow for their death in the here and now, but also joy in that they partake of the future life in Christ already. Songs of rejoice in sorrow and in joy are all part of the Biblical narrative as well. If there was ever a kind of praise music in the universe that actually captured this in any sense (how much worship music have you heard that ever sounded sad?), then I guess this would be it. Thanks, NieR soundtrack, for filling that particular hole in my life!
If you don’t own this…what are you waiting for? If there’s any soundtrack I could positively recommend for just about any person on the planet Earth, it’d be this one. Buy the game and this at Square-Enix’s Store! Hop to it! And tell them I sent you!