There are a million things to say about HBO’s thematically rich new series Westworld, and that’s pretty much the point. Developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, the show intends to be the network’s next water cooler phenomenon. But whereas Game of Thrones tries to emphasize the faux-medieval machinations of its ensemble cast, Westworld imbues Wild West action with philosophical musings. It exists at the intersection of horror, technology, and existentialism. And thanks to a dope soundtrack, it also exists in a nebulous place in time, somewhere (somewhen?) postmodern but also aged, like Wild Wild West but good.
Aside from composer Ramin Djawadi’s haunting opening theme, Westworld is poised to hammer out some killer diegetic and non-diegetic riffs. And we’re poised to obsess over them. Each week we’ll add the latest awesome songs to this list, until we’ve creating a ranking a season’s worth of old-timey takes on a modern standard.
The ‘Westworld’ Soundtrack Power Rankings
13. Episode 3: Scott Joplin - “Peacherine Rag”
There were no sneakily anachronistic songs in Episode 3, just a few simple songs on the piano that wouldn’t be out of place if Westworld actually took place in the old west. A song like Scott Joplin’s ‘Peacherine Rag” isn’t important for “why” the show’s creators used it. Instead it’s all in how they used it.
Previously in the episode we’d heard Joplin’s “Weeping Willow Rag” play on the piano in the Mariposa Saloon, meaning Joplin’s tunes must be a host favorite, but no special attention was paid to it. The song simply wafted through the scene when Teddy and the unnamed female bounty hunter (Bojana Novakovic) tied their bounty to a post outside and saddled up to the bar for a drink and a little bit more. But later, we see the specific close-up that the show continues to use of the player piano starting up, this time with Joplin’s “Peacherine Rag,” followed by Dolores being accosted by the mustachioed bandit and a guest.
Does this indicate a time loop jump, or is the song title simply referring to Dolores?
12. Episode 8: Amy Winehouse - “Back to Black”
Maeve is literally empowered in “Trace Decay,” so it makes sense her initial moments of writerly power are soundtracked to the jangly piano anthem “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. There is some lyrical importance to the song, which talks of having “died a hundred times” and fading to black just like the park’s free will-less hosts. But here the song is just a kind of revelatory chorus for Maeve finally finding herself with the ability to control her life as well as the lives of the robots around her.
11. Episode 3: Claude Debussy - “Reverie
You’re crazy for this one, Westworld creators. When Ford and Bernard enter the former’s opulent office we see that he has a personal old timey piano player in the form of what we assume is an obsolete robot. And what does said bot begin to clink on the keys while the pair of A.I. obsessives mull over their android consciousness problems? He plays a bit of “Reverie” by Claude Debussy, referencing the new behaviors Ford implanted in the hosts in the new program update.
**10. Episode 8: “House of the Rising Sun”
Its surprising that it took as long as “Trace Decay” for Westworld to include a player piano version of “House of the Rising Sun.” The oft-covered traditional (made popular by the electric blues rendition by The Animals) is a bit cliche, but basically so are all the other contemporary interpolations on the show. It would betray the very idea of hiding little audible easter eggs if each didn’t at least tangentially relate to what was happening, and in that way “House of the Rising Sun” being soundtracked to another one of Maeve’s transcendental morning walks is a perfectly legitimate choice.
The song is a cautionary tale about a woman whose life gradually falls apart, with lyrics like:
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
Considering Maeve’s reverie about her daughter and he plan to break free from the park in this episode, cliche gives way to a kind of recognizable resonance that just works.
9. Episode 1: Johnny Cash - “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)”
The real Man in Black is a little less sadistic than the show’s Man in Black (who is already memorably portrayed by actor Ed Harris) but the baritone country crooner is just as mysterious. It seems the only way to close out such a weighty and philosophical premiere episode was to give it the gravitas it deserved by letting the Johnny Cash tracks roll.
The traditional gospel song, hauntingly covered by Cash, features lyrics that are an ingenious bit of metaphor given the show’s robotic guest’s propensity for never dying. Resurrection is going to be a big theme on Westworld, but instead of the spiritual kind of revival Cash is singing about, it’ll be more of a mechanical rebirth for the robotic “hosts” in each episode.
8. Episode 4: The Cure - “A Forest”
When the song begins on the player piano, Maeve is at the Mariposa chit-chatting with Clementine before suddenly succumbing to a kind of auditory reverie. She zeroes in on Clementine’s eyes, which start bleeding, and we realize Maeve is remembering a previous narrative loop.
It seems the programmers at Westworld are post-punk fans. “A Forest” is the seventh track off Seventeen Seconds, the second album by 1980s British rockers The Cure. It’s a bit of a deep cut. No “Friday I’m in Love” or “Just Like Heaven”-type hits here, but the selection of “A Forest” begins to make sense when you look at the lyrics:
Come closer and see
See into the trees
Find the girl
If you can
Come closer and see
See into the dark
Just follow your eyes
Just follow your eyes
The robots are gaining consciousness, and maybe Maeve just fills in the blanks with lyrics by The Cure?
7. Episode 6: Radiohead - “Fake Plastic Trees”
Westworld loves Radiohead, and it’s easy to see why. The band has made a career out of matching lyrical angst to contemporary technological anxieties, and while Westworld far more overt than Thom Yorke and company it’s still trying to say the same thing.
The trusty player piano didn’t disappoint again, this time kicking off “The Adversary”with a twinkling version of “Fake Plastic Trees” off of Radiohead’s early album The Bends. Maeve wakes up, gets dressed, heads to the Mariposa, and chats with Clementine just like she does everyday in her manufactured world. The only difference is that this time she’s aware of the artifice. The song is Yorke’s early ode to lies, untruths, and falsehoods. It’s only appropriate that the first thing Maeve hears after having her bulk apperception turned all the way up.
6. Episode 5: Claude Debussy - “Clair de Lune”
This classic Debussy ditty can be heard in an acoustic version as William and Dolores enter the outlaw town of Pariah, but it’s used again when Robert Ford and the Man in Black have their confrontation in the episode’s penultimate scene. Ford is a bit of a Debussy superfan as his office robot played “Reverie” in Episode 3.
We’re thinking Ford loves Debussy because the French composer was known to incorporate mathematical structuring in his music, sometimes sublimating sections of his works into the Golden Ratio. Someone searching for perfection such as Ford would be drawn to that kind of ideal.
5. Episode 2: Radiohead — “No Surprises”
There weren’t as many anachronistic surprises on the soundtrack to Westworld this week, but one song on the player piano was all the show needed to put the hosts’ robotic fears into perspective.
As weve learned in the premiere, the hosts re-live each day in a kind of fateful Groundhog Day loop without any memories of their previous actions. There shouldn’t be any monotony in the repetition and their shouldn’t be any emotion, yet that’s exactly what’s happening to the hosts because of the “reveries” Dr. Robert Ford’s added to their software update. In Maeve’s case, the madame character played by Thandie Newton, she gives the guests the same spiel about coming to the New World to live her own way. As the piano plays Radiohead’s “No Surprises” she’s overcome by an abstract reverie of men being brutally killed during some kind of raid and her client walks off and. Needless to say it kind of kills the mood, forcing Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) to bring her in for reparative diagnostics.
She dreams again, and we infer it’s from her old life with a daughter on a farm, which was apparently cut short by a raiding party. One of the killers, unsurprisingly, turns into the Man in Black, which means either this guy gives every host the heebie jeebies, or he’s also connected to Maeve somehow.
Perhaps having the piano play another Radiohead hit, “Paranoid Android,” would have been a bit too on the nose even for Westworld, but “No Surprises” is still appropriate. After upping her sexual aggression on the same New World story to no avail, the lab techs decide to decommission Maeve. The song’s lyrics, particularly the end chorus, seems to connect to the hosts’ struggle with fear, sadness, and true emotion. They want no alarms, they might have no surprises, but they most definitely want to be let out of here
4. Episode 1: Soundgarden — “Black Hole Sun”
Nobody asked for a wonky player piano saloon version of “Black Hole Sun” but Westworld surely gave it to us. In another cleverly embedded detail within the show, the player piano in the dusty Westworld saloon run by Madame Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her band of prosthetic prostitutes lurches to life with a simple version of the 1994 track off the famed alt-rock band Soundgarden’s album Superunknown.
It’s a great example of how anachronism is being worked into the show and can suggest how the artificially created world filled with artificially created beings are all just a little off-kilter without you or the parks’ “guests” even knowing it. Be sure to keep an ear open in the future for more recognizable tunes emanating from the player piano, which also features prominently in the show’s opening credit sequence.
3. Episode 5: Nine Inch Nails - “Something I Can Never Have”
An orchestral version of this song, from Nine Inch Nails’ debut record Pretty Hate Machine, can be heard during the crazy orgy scene in Pariah. While everyone else is, well, overindulging, Dolores and William sit and ponder their place in such a messed up world. The track itself — which is pretty enough that it should have been used in sode itself — is about memory and regret, and once again the lyrics illuminate something about the characters, specifically Dolores. Just imagine her saying this all in her robotic head:
In this place it seems like such a shame
Though it all looks different now, I know it’s still the same
Everywhere I look you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be
If anything, the title “Something I Can Never Have” is just a representation of William’s tragic predicament in Westworld.
2. Episode 1: The Rolling Stones - “Paint It, Black”
The climax of the premiere episode also featured its most controversial song choice. On one hand, it’s an impossibly overwrought decision to play a lush, exaggerated orchestral version of “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones over the scene when actor Rodrigo Santoro’s leather-clad robotic outlaw Hector Escaton and his posse blast their way through the sleepy town as a way to make up for the park’s string of inconvenient robotic glitches. On the other hand, it fits perfectly with the pitch-black outlook that the show’s human characters have for their automata brethren. Dolores, Teddy, and even Hector are all just pawns in their artificially intelligent game.
Curiously, the actual lyrics to the song could be taken to refer to the Man in Black and his controversial and sadistic treatment of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in the premiere episode:
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
We’ll have to wait and see just how dark his behavior gets, but considering the Man in Black ended the premiere by scalping an unsuspecting host, it’s safe to say things are about to get pretty fucking black.
1. Episode 6: Radiohead - “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Maeve gets another hyper-aware Radiohead moment in “The Adversary,” which marks the show’s pinnacle of curious anachronisms so far. Felix takes Maeve behind the scenes at Westworld, and she doesn’t like what she shees. Bloody host corpses, new hosts birthed on the manufacturing assembly line, engineers testing out not so paranoid androids, and more. Maeve can make sense of it despite the horrors before her, but she just can’t let anybody else know she finally understands the illusion of her reality.
Setting the scene, where Maeve also essentially watches a trailer for her own life, to “Motion Picture Soundtrack” could be an emotional cheat, but it’s the show attempting its own musical Mad Men or Sopranos moment. The memorable epiphanies at the ends of those shows were soundtracked with songs like “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” as if they were the conscience of their main characters. Maeve has finally achieved consciousness, and gets her own orchestral soundtrack.