Once at the vanguard of the American new-wave scene, Danny Elfman deliberately turned his back on rock music after Boingo, the 1994 farewell by his weirdo Los Angeles collective Oingo Boingo. By that point, Elfman’s work as a film composer had greatly eclipsed his initial new wave fame and while he retained a cult—one big enough to keep Oingo Boingo’s albums in the lower reaches of Billboard’s Top 200 during the heyday of grunge—the soundtrack work was too fulfilling and too lucrative to turn down. Elfman happily busied himself with film, serving as the go-to composer for both Tim Burton and Gus Van Sant and writing notable scores like Silver Linings Playbook and Justice League. Then COVID-19 hit.
Elfman already was plotting a return to rock via an appearance at the 2020 Coachella festival, where he planned to unveil two new songs as part of a live retrospective. Once the pandemic forced organizers to cancel the festival, Elfman simply kept working on new songs, amassing enough for a double album—his first new rock record in nearly 30 years and first solo album since 1984’s So-Lo. Released last summer and knowingly titled Big Mess, the album felt as if it had been conceived and birthed in isolation. Dark and cloistered, superficially industrial, and gothic without being goth, Big Mess is an overheated Grand Guignol of an experience, 70 minutes of detours, jokes, and pointed social commentary: “Serious Ground” contained a sample of President Donald J. Trump, while another song explored “Love in the Time of Covid.”
Big Mess is the kind of record die-hard devotees crave: a dense listen that alienates all but the dedicated. That’s a good strategy for tending an audience but not necessarily for a re-introduction to a rock world that’s largely forgotten your existence. Enter Bigger. Messier., an album of remixes and reinventions from a variety of modern artists chosen to snare curious new listeners. As the title suggests, Bigger. Messier. is indeed unwieldy and unkempt, running a full 21 tracks to Big Mess’s 18, even though only 12 of that album’s songs get the remix treatment. Such details don’t really matter, not when the four variations of “Happy” range from skittish cacophony of the 33EMYBW Remix to the nocturnal new-wave bounce of Boy Harsher’s remix.
All four versions dispense with the tightly controlled melodrama of Elfman’s original, which is par for the course for Bigger. Messier. The original recordings aren’t treated as a blueprint so much as a suggestion, with melodic and lyrical phrases coming into focus and then fading away in a flurry of drum’n’bass and synthetic clatter. Some artists opt to introduce elements of light and shade to their renditions, while additional vocalists add some extra dimensions. Witness “Kick Me,” a barbed and silly satire of celebrity, respectively featuring both Fever 333 and Iggy Pop. Fever 333’s metallic rendition is a bit rote, but Iggy’s hamminess amplifies Elfman’s cartoonishness in an appealing way; he’s playing with the audience, not to it. The flip of these exaggerated gestures is Trent Reznor’s interpretations of “Native Intelligence” and “True,” which both turn the overt dark hysteria of the originals into simmering dioramas of tension.