Modern Love soundtrack – an emphatic comeback and a show-stealer

There is so much talk about Ilayaraja’s work for Modern Love Chennai (he composed the music for three of the six films in the anthology) you’d think it was the 80s again. And yet….so little of his work for this series sounds like the 80s (also, a web series wouldn’t/couldn’t have given him a wonderful platform in the 80s!).

Among the songs, Nenjil Oru Minnal (rendered by the man himself) probably evokes his trademark sound the most while the theme The Goodbye with its nods to Mella Mella is the one among the instrumentals that sounds most Raja-like.

But it’s very difficult to identify the maestro in the metal ballad-crossed-with-Mukesh/TMS-waltz Thee Inbamae or the rocker Sooriyan Thondrudhu (albeit the choir like chorus, again, has traces of his style). This is such a stunning reinvention, a volte face almost it’s hard to believe it happened. How on earth did Thiagarajan Kumararaja push him into that space…or was the maestro always eager to shed some skin and it was the directors who wanted the touch of old? After all, the maestro has changed his sound more than any composer not named A R Rahman during his long, long career. You cannot tell me you hear much of Annakilli Unnai Theduthe in Thodatha Thaalam. And Pattu Poo Poo in 1994 is already very different from even that 1987 track. And NEPV’s Pengal Yendral was already a guns-blazing rocker. I have a theory that in fact Ilayaraja fans are addicted to his vintage sound and accuse him of not changing to cover up for this addiction.

But even so, Modern Love is still stunningly bold and that’s without even mentioning his age. It also offers a fresh canvas for Raja-jazz. The Goodbye is very typical of many jazzy themes he has done over the years, while Kaalai Visai picks up where Day by Day left off back in 1994 and adds mandolin to the mix (an unexpected contemporary-retro touch, also evident on Aanaal which is clearly a youthful interpretation of nostalgia). But the maestro-rendered Paavi Nenjae is the most satisfying of the jazzy numbers and my pick of his work on the album. I wish he had composed this when he was younger and had a little more heft in his voice. But he still manages to capture that gentle swag you need in jazz – a casual gravitas that is so appealing in this space.

In the midst of all this, though, three other composers did work on the anthology. And one of them steals the show (in my opinion) with a lovely, lovely number that, oddly enough, has the tender sweetness of some of the maestro’s vintage work (think Kaiveesum Thamarai or Seer Kondu Vaa) in a modern package. That number is Sean Roldan’s Uravu, rendered by him and Padmapriya Raghavan. As such, Uravu is an apt demonstration that the line between modern and classic is not and (indeed need not) be defined by the presence or absence of autotune, programmed beats or electronics. Or indeed Westernised pronunciation of Indian lyrics. Modern is simply a sensibility and not a combination of elements. It’s why Gagan Dhuan Dhuan too sounds modern even though it too is drenched in acoustics.

When I played the Raja songs on Modern Love, my mother commented that they don’t even sound like Tamil songs (which is apt because the vocals both in terms of writing and rendering of, especially, Aanaal, Sooriyan, Kaalai and Thee, are unabashedly Western). On the other hand, the singing in Uravu is authentically Tamil. And the combination of that authentic and rustic Tamil sound with the contemporary indie-like music is beautiful.

Also, like his much more illustrious senior on the project has often done, Roldan creates an earworm of a motif through the whistled part that is repeated a bunch through the song. Violins are used elegantly and without overpowering the song, while most of it is driven by piano and guitar. As I said, there’s nothing on Uravu that would sound odd on an old track, indeed an 80s Ilayaraja track. And yet, it sounds unmistakably modern, unmistakably 2023 and achieves this feat just by its very being.

In a review of Wolf, the reviewer commented that James Spader had all but stolen Jack Nicholson’s thunder (in a project championed by Nicholson no less!). I will not exactly transpose that to Modern Love but Roldan more than holds his own with his magical creation in a project dominated by Ilayaraja. For now, Ilayaraja is receiving all the (well deserved) plaudits for Modern Love. But in the fullness of time, Uravu will stand tall and shoulder-to-shoulder with the maestro’s own work for Modern Love.


8 Responses to “Modern Love soundtrack – an emphatic comeback and a show-stealer”

  1. Anand Raghavan Says:

    Well analyzed !! In my circle of my age as well as next gen
    not many noticed this album though some saw the series. I highlightted some of your points to them, they were amazed that IR has given a youthful at this age, some of them who were raving on Kaatumalli.

    • Madan Says:

      Hmm, surprised to know not many noticed this album because both the series and the album have received decent buzz online.

      Yes, it’s astonishing that he would go from the timeless and rustic Kaatumalli to this album. And Ananya Bhatt sang both Kaatumalli AND Aanaal!

  2. Ashok Says:

    I just read your article

  3. Ashok Says:

    Oops, I pressed a wrong key posted something incomplete. I just read your article and am so looking forward to hearing this album. These days we are so jaded and starved of good music. Its very hard to get excited for new music. So when someone like you waxes eloquent on a new album, it immediately grabs my attention.

    Speaking of old guards breathing new fire, what do you think of the resurgence of many of the supergroups of the 70s. There is Yes, now fully under Steve Howe’s artistic control and aesthetic direction and it shows. Of course he is my favorite guitarist. If you have heard his solo albums you will find so much resemblance on The Quest as well as the “The Mirror…”. Then there is Jethro Tull’s new album RockFlote. And finally Abba’s album Voyager that was released last year. Oh, there was Lindsey Buckingham too(in 2021). They are all great albums but it is so hard to fall in love with a new album these days in the age of Spotify.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks Ashok. I haven’t heard either of the new Howe/Tull/Buckingham. Will do. Again, had you not waxed eloquent, I wouldn’t have paid attention to a new venture by an ‘old hand’. I kind of liked ABBA’s new album but it also didn’t offer too many surprises. It’s like, Raja has kept busy all this time but Modern Love is one of the very rare albums where he has gone so much against type (and yet, embedded elements like the string arrangement for Thee Inbamae or the chorus on Sooriyan point to his DNA in a much less obvious way than before).

      The last new album I absolutely loved was Lianne La Havas’ self titled album from 2021. Simply gorgeous and highly recommended. Have heard good things about the new Paramore but yet to hear. With Western, I have tended to pay more attention to young/young-ish artists as far as new albums go. It’s been a long time since an old hand blew me away. Even the last KC was nice-ish without really making me go wow (unlike the more daring Power to Believe).

      • Ashok Says:

        Wow! Such a coincidence. I was just going to write about King Crimson but for a different reason. Many years ago, a friend had shared a couple of improv pieces from KC and they just I was just blew me away. They are obviously improv sessions, many of them raw and half finished. Out of curiosity, I looked up on Spotify a few days ago and viola! there are so many of them available in their pristine glory. Only for die hard KC fans. A quick google search and I found that they did a lot of improv in their regular albums such as Red. In fact Moonchild in ITCOKC was also all improv in the second half. That is some mind blowing talent! On par with what Miles Davis and his band often did as in Bitches Brew. I will check out Power of Believe, which I never knew existed. Also the other ones you mention.

      • Ashok Says:

        As I said, it is hard to fall in love with new music from old hands. These albums by Yes, Tull and Abba are more of a nostalgic trip. But they are better than most of their middling stuff they did in the last 20-30 years. And I would have liked them more if they had released earlier. I am also sad to see the music scene becoming so stagnant in India. Most MDs seem to have lost their fire. I can see good MDs like Amit Trivedi, Pritam et al just phoning it in. SEL and Vishal Shekhar are not even trying. Even ARR. Maybe he has much less artistic control or inspiration when composing for films like PSx. For a while I liked Santhosh Narayan but haven’t found anything interesting in the last 1 or 2 years.

        Sorry, I have digressed so far from the topic of your article! Back to IR’s new album. I will give it a iisten and share my impressions shortly

      • Madan Says:

        Speaking of Bollywood, Vishal Bharadwaj composed a beautiful number for Modern Love Mumbai last year. Unfortunately, it never got much traction. That’s the other problem in Bolly. Nobody’s paying attention even when good things happen unlike the way so many reviewers are talking about Raja’s work for Modern Love Chennai. In fact, I only heard it when I learnt there had been a Modern Mumbai series last year and checked out the music.

        You can listen to the Vishal Bharadwaj track (Raat Bhar) at 13:34 here:

        And this is the Modern Love Chennai jukebox:

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