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Meaningless Returns Jon Brion, Hollywood’s Ultimate Collaborator, To the Spotlight

In an era where movie scores often favor ambiance or electronic soundscapes, Jon Brion remains a champion of melody. Much has been written about his work with filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Michel Gondry. In films like “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Brion’s music evokes the lush soundscape of a Hollywood musical. His is a score without libretto; if the characters in those films were suddenly to break into song, not a beat of Brion's scoring would feel out of place.

But even as he continues to work with some of the biggest artists of our generation—orchestrations on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, production on Janelle Monáe’s Dirty ComputerBrion has always been viewed as a collaborator first and a recording artist second. Even contemporary interviews anchor his output in the context of the filmmakers and songwriters he supports. This has prevented his unique voice as a songwriter from ever standing quite on its own. Brion may be held in high regard by a select few, but for the average cinephile, his efforts were always seen through the context of a musical or cinematic genius.

At least until now. Earlier this year, Jealous Butcher Records announced that it would work with Brion to remaster and re-release Meaningless, a 2001 album that featured the multi-instrumentalist performing and singing a collection of original songs. Brion detailed the complicated history of that album in his recent interview with Vulture—creative differences with the studio led to a half-hearted physical that never made the leap to digital streaming. Meaningless was lost to only the most devoted industry musicians. While new generations of songwriters praised it as the “perfect” album, those curious about Brion’s work would have to make do with secondary markets or YouTube uploads.

If you have only a passing knowledge of Brion’s filmography, Meaningless will serve as a musical Rosetta Stone. The album will help you understand why directors like Greta Gerwig call him her “all-time favorite musician” and hand-pick him for her debut feature. Brion is an artist studied in ’60s pop-rock, whose appreciation for songwriting structure and lush melodies can be tied to the influence of artists like Harry Nilsson and Ray Davies. Throw in his penchant for experimentation as a producer, and it’s no wonder that Brion’s work underpins some of the most successful albums of the 21st Century.

But those only familiar with his scores miss another side of the artist: the clever lyricism that often positions Brion as his own unreliable narrator as he navigates relationships and life. Meaningless deepens the connection between Brion and the films he would work on by establishing relationship neuroses as a pre-existing musical condition for the composer. 

Take “Ruin My Day,” the fourth track on the album. Here Brion captures a unique-but-relatable period in post-breakup psychology. The song adopts the perspective of someone who has mostly moved on from their previous partner but is still susceptible to moments of pure agony when their ex appears unannounced. “Love,” Brion sings over the bridge, “it was nothing. It hardly hurt a bit.” The tension between melody and lyrics is undeniable, and Brion’s gift for upbeat waltzes obscures the sadness lurking around every corner.

Many of these songs have been and will continue to be high-concept songs of separation. Still, it’s important to note that Brion’s lyrics never let their protagonists off the hook. Even tracks like “I Believe She’s Lying”—which moves with the urgency and anger of a classic break-up anthem—position the singer as incapable of advocating for themselves. “I trust her to undermine my faith in her, in time,” the artist sings. “I have every confidence that she’ll dismantle mine.” Again, the song may be positioned as an act of betrayal, but there is a clear act of projection here. Brion writes smart music for people who aren’t being honest with themselves.

And these musical contradictions—upbeat sadness, empathetic selfishness—should make it clear why Brion was chosen for his projects. Movies like “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”—or even more recent films like “Lady Bird”—reflect the emotional intelligence that can be found in Brion’s music from the very beginning. Even if the album is 20 years old, the music will help inform new generations of movie lovers and enrich their experience with the scores that Brion orchestrated.

Listening to Meaningless means understanding how tone can become text in cinema. And understanding the artist beyond his collaborations also helps elevate his often-overlooked soundtracks. “Le Grand Bain” (“Sink or Swim”), a 2018 comedy about synchronized swimming, may offer a twist on the “Full Monty” playbook, but it rarely gets counted among the best of Brion’s scores. But when his voice suddenly sings out on “Something To Prove”—the only track on the score to include lyrics—one can see how the artist’s balance of melody and melancholy creates something beautiful. “There’s always doubt within you,” Brion sings, “that you can’t give into. Life is pushing through.”

Over the years, friends of Brion have given voice to their own covers of Meaningless songs. Mutual Admiration Society, a supergroup formed between the members of Nickel Creek and the former lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket, covered “Trouble” on their only album. Likewise, Rhett Miller offered his rendition of “I Believe She’s Lying” in his 2006 solo album, The Believer. And Sara Watkins included her version of “Same Mistakes” in her self-titled 2009 debut album. These covers have kept the album alive and proven the skill in his songwriting.

But now that Meaningless finally has its platform, perhaps we can stop referring to Jon Brion in the context of the artists he supported and focus on the artist that he is. In the words of frequent collaborator Chris Thile, Brion is “one of the great musical mad scientists of our time.” Like many scientists, the importance of the work is destined not to be fully understood without hindsight. So let us appreciate Meaningless and its many connections to Jon Brion’s film work now and—fingers crossed—not waste another 20 years waiting for new Jon Brion solo music.

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