The Outlander Season 3 TV soundtrack is full of hellos, goodbyes, and is, at times, straight up bonkers. Here’s why it stands out among Bear McCreary’s previous Outlander efforts and reminds me of La La Land. Yes, La La Land.
But will you find yourself obsessively asking Alexa to play it while you cook or clean in your kitchen?
Now there’s the rub…
If you are expecting the same kind of easy listening with all the traditional Scottish flair we have come to drool over for the past two albums, then you may be disappointed. As such, this could be a reason why some people may not be entirely on board with the overall listening experience Season 3 has to offer. Like the show itself, Season 3’s accompanying soundtrack is very different. This despite the fact that there is enough Outlander DNA present, especially in the beginning, so that when you do catch your favorite themes from years past, you sit back, smile and realize the brilliance and technical achievement this album possesses.
As varied as this album is, a main pillar of this soundtrack’s strength is the effort Bear makes to tell a musical story that coheres and blends all of his established themes — both new and old — despite the sonic differences contained within the album’s structure. This is in stark contrast to McCreary’s efforts on season two of Outlander, which felt jagged and populated by a series of mini-concertos with no through-line of overall story. This album tells a naturally progressing story, in spite of the abnormal number of discordant themes, and fuses them together with perfection.
Like Bear’s music this time around, I’m going to buck the norm and begin this review at the end — the part that bowled over my Outlander world by its overwhelming diversity. Simply put, the end of this album is straight up bananaland and I love every minute of it.
The funny thing is that as I listened to the conclusion of the soundtrack, all I could picture was a verse from the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” on the wildly impressive soundtrack for the 2016 film, La La Land:
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us.
Madness is key to this album. Bear makes choices that I didn’t know I needed in my soundtrack life or even knew were possible until I heard this madness. There’s stuff on here that one would never expect to be in Outlander’s musical vocabulary and I think it’s probably Bear’s most unique and diverse album since Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.
By using instruments, arrangements, vocals and methods we’ve never heard anywhere in the Outlander-verse, Bear leads us on a journey that none of us could have (or even should have for that matter) expected from a show that is rooted in 18th century Scotland. That’s why it’s so special.
While I loved Bear’s previous Outlander efforts, the inescapable truth is that a composer can only do so much with the Scottish framework established in previous seasons’ work. Yes, I can, and have, listened to Outlander Season 1 on repeat while blowing off every single responsibility at my day job, but after a while his previous soundtracks kind of meld together (save for his foray into French Baroque music from Season 2). That’s not a slight against his work — we all know truly talented he is — but it all just feels so similar after multiple listens.
Because of our collective comfort level and inherent bias toward his traditional Scottish musings, the differences in the Season 3 soundtrack may be jarring initially, and I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to give this more of a nuanced listen. But let it wash over you — the whole thing. Don’t skip songs, don’t rush to get to your favorite theme. Once you take in the piece as a whole, it’s as if Bear is reaching out his hand to take us down a path of his genius while saying, “trust me.” Yes. #TrustBear.
We begin with the now famous Caribbean version of “The Skye Boat Song,” which contains heavy Afro-Cuban percussion and Raya Yarbrough’s always haunting vocals, and immediately sets the tone for the back half of Outlander Season 3. It’s quickly risen to be one of my favorite versions of this song so far because it starts the trend of blending the expected with the unanticipated.
A perfect example of the aforementioned musical cohesion is “Wind And Rain” — our first inroad into the meat of the craziness. But its reliance on familiar bagpipes, traveling themes and guitar eases us into our new world as we also catch glimpses of more Afro-Cuban drumming in addition to an intro to what will eventually become our first gigantic departure from Outlander’s music — “Willoughby’s Theme.”
Following “Wind and Rain” is, in fact, the solo cut of “Willoughby’s Theme.” I won’t begin to pretend to know anything about the Chinese instrumentation, but the flute and strings set this song onto a world of its own. It’s beautiful, bold, and serves as a great character theme that exemplifies Yi-Tien Cho’s strength and sincerity. A MAJOR standout.
Continuing the musical story synergy is the terrific, but mainly tone music, “Uncharted.” Bear adeptly chooses to underscore this song in order to allow the onscreen drama unfold in a more prominent manner, a technique he employs to great effect in the first half of the album (but we’ll get to that later).
“Uncharted,” however, is only a table setter for the best part of the album — beginning with what is undoubtedly (and astonishingly) my favorite track: “The Bakra.”
Yes, it is creepy, and yes, I always love a good villain. But this song, serving as Geillis’ theme, is hypnotic, dangerous, and ENTIRELY FOREIGN to anything ever heard in Outlander. It is played on the yialli tanbur, a Turkish instrument that has metallic strings that Bear used frequently during his tenure on Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. This theme is actually a mutated and perverted interpretation of the Stones theme! Listen closely. You’ll hear it. Couple this with his use of Celtic harp and Gamelan bells (which surprisingly remind me of “Pure Imagination” from the Willy Wonka soundtrack) and it might actually be one of my favorite tracks he’s ever created.
As much as I loved “The Bakra,” however, it’s missing one thing: the greatest 50 seconds in Outlander music ever recorded. That distinguished honor goes to the next track, the completely bonkers “The Crocodile’s Fire.”
“The Crocodile’s Fire” is WILD. Featuring frenetic drumming and incredible vocals by Joel Virgel, it really feels as if you are mistakenly privy to a private voodoo ritual. But what really makes this song kick is the fact that it contains two entirely different and stylistically disparate scores — the drums and then the more traditional strings — LAYERED ON TOP OF EACH OTHER at the same time. Each gives way at specific moments to highlight on-screen drama. This, in turn, leads to the greatest 50 seconds ever recorded in Outlander music — when the drums and the traditional strings reach a fever pitch only to reveal a hybrid version of the Stones theme that pull together every musical touch Outlander has ever offered.
It’s a stylistic and technical triumph of biblical proportions that absolutely has NO BUSINESS working together, but it totally opened my eyes to how beautiful, complex, and textured Outlander music can be if we allow ourselves to see the colors of the madness Bear dares us to see.
We round out the album with “Abandawe,” focusing back on Geillis’ theme with some heavy strings reminiscent of Michael Giacchino’s work on LOST, and then “Eye of the Storm,” which is representative of Bear’s more traditional Outlander work. In a nice touch, this piece notably evokes Season 2’s theme for Faith, making a connection with Claire and her long passed daughter at the exact right dramatic moment. More importantly, however, Bear finishes the song with a familiar tune in the Stones theme — something he has done in each season past. But this rousing and swelling version of the Stones theme has been altered to include a brand new engine driven by a steady and revolving use of strings alluding to the mystery and grand nature of the Americas yet to come.
Although the soundtrack ends here, the review of this album does not because we are lead right back to our traditional roots, which is the focus of the first half of the album: another modified version of “The Skye Boat Song” but this time a subtle and more traditional cinematic take that includes the first real step into brass instruments, such as French horns and trombones. But as cinematic as it may be, it also finds a great purpose — to initiate our subconscious goodbyes to our Scottish musical base with the lonely and sorrowful bagpipes.
The first real standout of the album comes next as we dive headfirst into John Williams territory with the first use of the noble sounding French horn in Outlander. I, of course, refer to Lord John Grey’s theme, which sounds somewhat similar to Frank’s theme.
“Blood on the Moor,” “Rupert Is Next,” “The Promise of John Grey,” and “All Debts Paid” are all sorrowful tunes that expertly blend all the themes we have come to love over Outlander’s run — Jamie and Claire, the Stones theme, Scottish folk themes, the newly introduced John Grey theme, and yes, even Frank’s theme (with a surprise appearance in “Rupert is Next”). While I love these songs separately, they seem to work better as a group because, as we noted earlier, Bear seemed to underscore this part of the season to let the drama play out ON SCREEN instead of through his musical beats. They are there to carry us and nudge us along the journey as we watch the incredible writing come to life, say goodbye to some of the themes we have come to love but also welcome new blood into the musical stream.
That is… until he wants to wallop us over the head…
Wallop us he does with a gut wrenching and absolute KILLER version of Frank’s theme in “A Car Accident.” Modernized with piano, and a slightly higher octave from the clarinet, Bear treats us to my favorite version of Frank‘s theme as his final goodbye.
“The Art of Seduction” and “Willie” cap the first half of the album with fun, playful and innocent themes that meet our more traditional expectations from Outlander.
A song I have purposely left off until now is “The Liberty Song,” one of the most famous pre-revolution songs from American history and I LOVE the fact that Bear adds it to this season as a sort of stinger like you’d see after the end credits of a Marvel film. It’s totally unlike anything Outlander has done before and doesn’t even feel as if it belongs here. But it absolutely works.
In the end, this has become my new favorite Outlander soundtrack. Not because it’s a smooth, easy-listening experience. In fact, I would suggest Outlander Season 1B is probably the best overall listening experience because it’s all so similar in tone and musicality.
But, this album…this album blew my doors off. It’s now my favorite Outlander soundtrack precisely because it’s so jarring and even motley at times. Which is why we need it — to grow the Outlander world and show us how far it can go.
So every time you listen to this soundtrack and think how bonkers it really is, there might come a time when you want to skip a track or two. Maybe it’s not your favorite. I get it.
But, I want you to remember — “A bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see.”
And, oh yeah…
Grade: A- (fantastic but be ready to be forced out of your comfort zone)
Have you listened to the Outlander Television Soundtrack: Season 3?
What grade would you give it? How does it compare to previous seasons?