All the King’s Men, a remake of an earlier 1940’s Oscar winner based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren, was critically savaged even before its release, with a surprising amount of direct criticism reserved for James Horner’s score, which reviewers derided as “self-important,” “overbearing,” or “melodramatic.” One reviewer even likened Horner’s music to that of Rocky (!). Many of the comments (aside from the one about Rocky, naturally!) were apt descriptors of the music itself, which couldn’t be farther from Horner’s most thunderous works. It’s an uncompromisingly bleak and tragic score.
The work is like the darker parts of A Beautiful Mind (though it is not a direct borrowing, merely a stylistic similarity): it’s dark and moody, with rumbling pianos and timpani aplenty. Almost all of the album’s thematic material is interpreted through this dark lens, resulting in a very subdued and overcast feel even when the music is at its loudest.
Aside from the usual stylistic similarities, the score is largely devoid of repetitions of Horner’s earlier work, with the exception of track three, “Give Me a Hammer and I’ll Nail ‘Em Up!” which is heavily reminiscent of Braveheart. Oddly, despite its pedigree, “Hammer” is the most uplifting track on the album, and stands out starkly from the mass of underscore on the remainder of the album.
By playing up the heavy, tragic aspects of the story, All the King’s Men does seem rather self-important, but more importantly it feels subdued, attempting to generate the gravitas the film lacked through measured, deliberate scoring. The result isn’t the easiest listen, and the tracks tend to blur together, especially near the end. While there’s adequate thematic material, the style in which it’s rendered doesn’t make it stand out.
All the King’s Men probably doesn’t deserve the critical panning it’s gotten (which may have more to do with the quality of the film it’s attached to), but it’s far from the composer’s strongest work. Certainly, anyone looking for bombast in the score (or anything resembling Rocky, for that matter) will be disappointed by album’s end. Seek it out only if you’re interested in James Horner’s darkest, most brooding music in several years, despite the critical drubbing the score and film have received.