Few records on this list are less concerned than Music and Lyrics with being the best of anything. The soundtrack for a frothy Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore romcom, Music and Lyrics the album is a cheerful pastiche of formulaic pop songwriting. Haley Bennett, playing teen hitmaker Cora Corman, sings “Buddha’s Delight,” a knock-off of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” which perkily appropriates Eastern melodies and spiritual themes to carnal ends, as enlightenment becomes a double entendre.
Forget about your past life
because this could be your last life
Boy we’re gonna reach Nirvana!”
Then in the next track Hugh Grant as washed up 80s songwriter Alex Fletcher sings the faux retro hit “Meaningless Kiss,” which lifts the sax solo and overwrought melodrama from Wham’s “Careless Whisper.” “We’ve got to finish what we shouldn’t have started,” Grant moans thinly, as the Muzak throbs with tinny ersatz heartbreak.
“Toxic” and “Carless Whisper” are both pop masterpieces in their way, and I can’t really argue that the versions on Music and Lyrics match up to the originals. But there is something transcendent in the way the album balances love and giggles as it juxtaposes bits of effervescent sexy radio floof from across the decades. As the New Wave pastiche “Pop! Goes my Heart,” says with sweet harmonies and surging jittery synths, “I wasn’t going to fall in love again/but then pop goes my heart!” Music and Lyrics captures that feeling of hearing a hook for the first time and wanting to replay it over and over and over again— love at first listen.
Most of the album is written by indie-pop genius turned television jingle writer Adam Schlesinger, and it’s the best summation of his dual musical persona. The soundtrack’s centerpiece, “Way Back Into Love,” in particular is about the way pop transforms crass calculation into wide-eyed wonder, and vice versa. In the movie, Cora assigns Alex (Grant) to write a song based on a title. He teams up with Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), a young woman hired to water his plants who turns out to be a gifted writer.
Their demo version with Grant and Barrymore providing wavering harmonies, is a fantastically catchy indie pop heart-on-sleeve chronicle of the film’s central love affair—and also of Alex’s efforts to break back into the charts and restart his sputtering career.
All I want to do is find a way back into love
I can’t make it true without a way back into love
and if I open my heart again
I guess I’m hoping you’ll be there for me in the end.
The lyrics are a description of Alex falling in love, of Alex falling into pop—and perhaps of Schelsinger embracing a Hollywood career which involves repackaging his indie career for Hollywood. The more polished, mainstream radio ready version of “Way Back Into Love” with Haley Bennett’s vocals overpowering Grant’s isn’t selling out so much as rebalancing the mix of nostalgia, joy, sincerity and calculation. “I could use some direction/and I’m open to your suggestions” is about as clear and ingratiating a statement of pop’s universal ambitions and compromises as you can make in a pop song—a completely winning, completely sincere statement of the open-hearted ethos of hack work.
The delight of the album is that even the moments that lack inspiration are a kind of inspiration. The Swedish band the Teddybears “A Different Sound” ends up being about how it’s pretty standard dancepop—if you wanted something really different would you be listening to a Hollywood soundtrack about pop music? Bennett’s “Entering Bootytown” about using your rear to get your man is the closest to a flat-out Spinal Tap-type parody, but also the track that you could most unironically see butting into the charts.
The piano confessional “Don’t Write Me Off” is a Billy Joel-esque exercise that almost redeems that artist’s catalogue by the simple expedient of leaning into the musical theater and dropping the rock pretense. For the movie’s romantic high point, Schelsinger crafted a slice of unapologetic shmaltz that includes the line, “It’s not just my furniture you’ve rearranged.” It’s ostentatiously banal, and you can’t stop humming it. You could say his genius failed him, or that failure is sometimes a kind of genius in itself.
In the movie, Alex fliply throws out the phrase, “love autopsy” as an example of a terrible idea for a lyric. Barrymore’s Sophie takes it as a challenge, and riffs on it. The resulting song fragment is the last track on the album.
Figuring out you and me
Is like doing a love autopsy
They could operate all day long
And never figure out what went wrong.
You can make pop out of anything, and never know why it went wrong, or right. Music and Lyrics is about loving to order and on a schedule. Schlesinger captures like no one else the 9 to 5 grunt job of creating miracles.