Any billionaire control freak with a fetish for whips and chains who’s set on making a mixtape for a prospective love slave would do well to begin with Annie Lennox’s version of “I Put a Spell on You.” Outwardly elegant, the retro-soul burner (forcefully performed by Lennox and Hozier at the Grammys) 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 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 blockbuster that brought S&M to the bookshelves of women worldwide. This collection — the latest in a string of major soundtracks, following Frozen and The Hunger Games — 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 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 (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) than whatever edgier industrial, EDM or metal tracks might have had they been chosen for this set.
But Fifty Shades of Grey is still a movie with its share of kinky sex scenes, and for that, the soundtrack offers a couple of red-hot Beyoncé remixes, including a “Crazy in Love” that’s stripped bare of horns and trussed up with spooky synths and drumbeats. Electro-rock act Awolnation shows its lusty side with a faithful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” It lacks Springsteen’s creeping sensuality, 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 of Grey 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 Grey’s struggles to dominate Steele while also submitting to the “hearts and flowers” feelings he says he normally doesn’t do.
The biggest weakness of Fifty Shades of Grey is that Grey and Steele 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 (“I’m burning like a cannonball in the air”) 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 slaps hard enough to leave a lasting mark.