REVIEW: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ soundtrack is somber, terrifying

handmaid's tale soundtrack
(Lakeshore Records)

One of the things about listening to a soundtrack while watching a show or a film is that it is experienced viscerally yet indirectly. We feel the impact of the music and its contribution to the viewing experience, but it is largely unconscious because there are so many things that the mind has to process when watching a show or a film, especially one that is as dense and consummately artful as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Many of us, while watching the first several episodes of this show, were already aware of various degrees to the compelling power of the soundtrack by Adam Taylor (and here by “soundtrack” I mean rather the original score, not the smattering of pop songs used here and there). But unless we rewatched the episodes for a second viewing (and even if we did), it is hard to fully appreciate the nuanced craftsmanship of a good soundtrack when, let us say, you are a being distracted by the sensations of horror, disgust and rage elicited by the shocking or disturbing scenes in the show.

With the recent release of the The Handmaid’s Tale Soundtrack from Lakeshore Records, viewers can now listen to the full soundtrack with focused attention, with no horrible occurrences on the TV screen to distract you. And it is a compelling listen, to say the very least.

With the very first track, “Escape Within,” we hear the Elisabeth Moss voiceover that opens Episode 1, “Offred”:

Chair. Table. A Lamp. The window with white curtains. And the glass that is shatterproof but it isn’t running away that they’re afraid of…”

The effectiveness of this kind of use of actors’ voices from the film or show in question varies, but here it works supremely well. The juxtaposition of Moss’s voice with the somber string music has a truly haunting effect.

The second track, “Chased,” introduces the creeping, unsettling motif that often accompanies some of the quietly disturbing scenes of the show and reappears on numerous tracks throughout the album. Next is “River Walk” which only amps up the intensity to nearly unbearable degrees. (You might not want to listen to this soundtrack with headphones or at high volume).

The atmosphere of dread doesn’t let up until about halfway into the fourth track, “Ofglen and Offred,” which introduces a contemplative and somewhat transcendent element. But this doesn’t last long as  “He Wants to See You” promptly steeps us back into Taylor’s sonic pot of dread. There’s another brief moment of respite, even tenderness, in “The Smell of Caves,” the music that accompanies Offred’s entrance into the room where Janine is going through labor in Episode 2, “Birth Day.” And then it’s right back to Spookyville.

handmaid's tale album
The tension, terror, dread and misery of the show – it’s all here in musical form.

It’s not all gloom and doom as pieces like “Their First Time” and “They Were Once Madly in Love” contain shimmering echoes of Michael Nyman and Erik Satie and Debussy, respectively. And the closing track, “He’s Alive,” sounds like it belongs on a Kid A-era Radiohead album. But for the most part this soundtrack is not for the feint of heart. So unrelenting is the tension throughout it, in fact, that a careful study of it would be like a masterclass in composing sountracks to horror films. No exaggeration. And when it isn’t scaring the s**t out of you it is somber and depressing as hell. Listening to it is almost like a masochistic experience, but I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. This is damn fine work and it’s going to make Adam Taylor as much in demand as a composer as Battlestar Galactica made Bear McCreary one of the hottest composers for television.

The Handmaid’s Tale Soundtrack isn’t particularly recommended listening for those with anxiety issues (I felt genuinely uncomfortable while listening to it). In fact, sometimes the experience of listening got so intense in parts that I had to pause it and go do something else for a bit to calm down. But this is not at all a criticism of the work. It is, rather, a testament to the adroit skill with which Adam Taylor is able to tap into our collective anxieties in what is already a socially and political anxious time for many.

So if you’re looking for something for background music while you’re doing yoga, then this definitely isn’t it. But if you’re already a fan of the show and are seeking an intense, cathartic experience of having your guts turned inside out and then fed back to you, then look no further. The Handmaid’s Tale Soundtrack is highly recommended and is an essential companion to viewing the show.

About June Red