Album Review: The 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Soundtrack Hits Hard Enough to Leave a Lasting Mark
If a billionaire control freak with a fetish for whips and chains were to make a mixtape for a prospective love slave, he'd do well to begin with Annie Lennox's version of "I Put a Spell On You." Outwardly elegant, Lennox's sophisticated retro-soul burner barely masks the monstrous possessiveness driving the 1956 Screamin' Jay Hawkins original. In response to that tune, a young lady unsure about the whole bondage thing might blast U.K. singer Laura Welsh's "Undiscovered," a strutting synth-pop call-out for human connection co-penned by Dev Hynes.
So begins the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey, Sam Taylor-Johnson's anticipated film adaptation of novelist E. L. James' pop-erotica bestseller, which hits theaters on Feb. 13. Fifty Shades brought S&M to the bookshelves of regular folks worldwide, and this collection of songs wisely skews mainstream, even when it gets a little dirty. After all, neither James' book nor Taylor-Johnson's film is really that dark, and the bursting-heart pop of Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do" and longing pixie-folk balladry of Sia's "Salted Wound" say more about the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele than whatever colder, edgier industrial, EDM, or even metal tracks the producers might have chosen for this set.
But Fifty Shades is a movie with its share of kinky sex, and for that, the soundtrack offers a couple of red-hot Beyonce remixes, including a "Crazy In Love" that's stripped bare of horns and trussed up with spooky synths and drumbeats that echo like boot steps on a dungeon floor. Electro-rockers Awolnation show their lusty side with a faithful cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire." It's not the creepily sensual cold shower the Boss provides, but the soundtrack already features The Rolling Stones ("Beast of Burden") and Frank Sinatra ("Witchcraft"), so maybe one more old-timer would've been too many.
It's fortunate the Fifty Shades film arrives now, some four years after the first installment of the book trilogy, since a new wave of slightly deviant bedroom R&B has made stars of artists like the Weeknd, who delivers two of this disc's best tracks. The throbbing "Where You Belong," in particular, captures actor Jamie Dornan's struggles to dominate Dakota Johnson's Ana while also submitting to the "hearts and flowers" feelings he normally doesn't do.
The biggest weakness of Fifty Shades is that Christian and Ana rarely become more than broad sketches, and neither the novel nor the film matches the drama that Skylar Grey reaches for with "I Know You." As a torch song, it's fairly lackluster, but even Skylar's iffiest lyrics spank the daylights out of James' stilted dialogue, much of which resurfaces in the movie. Of the book, the flick, and the soundtrack, only the music really hits hard enough to leave a lasting mark.
A version of this story will appear in the Feb. 21 issue of Billboard.