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Always Music In The Air: Twin Peaks: The Return Performances From Worst To Best

When Julee Cruise appeared at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return Episode 17 on Sunday night, reprising “The World Spins” from the first season of Twin Peaks way back in 1990, it was reassuring to see the platinum blonde singer in front of those red curtains, her voice soft and ethereal, and her face betraying only a few of the nearly 30 years. It was a big moment within the show and without: a signal that the story was about to eat its own tail and therefore a nod to fans’ nostalgia. Granted, David Lynch ran the credits over her performance and cut her off after a minute or so, as though she had been shoehorned into episode, another thing to mark off the list. Cruise was pretty pissed off, calling the editing a “slap in the face” from “The Emperor.” If you had turned off your television when the scene faded, “The World Spins” would have provided a nice bit of symmetry; if you kept watching — which of course you did — the performance became a point against which to measure how far Lynch would take us from anything familiar or reassuring.

Music has always played a crucial role in the world of Twin Peaks: not just the avant-soap-opera jazz score by Angelo Badalamenti, but also the pop songs both real and imagined that reverberate throughout the original series. “Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there is always music in the air,” says the man from Another Place — except he says it backwards. Characters listen to beatnik jazz or dance languidly to industrial music on the local diner jukebox. Teenagers get together to make home recordings of dreamy pop songs written by the town’s motorcycle-riding rebel. At least in the original series, music made this town all the more peculiar, all the more mysterious.

Twin Peaks: The Return expanded the role of music, not only retaining much of Badalamenti’s original score but showcasing musical acts at a local venue called the Bang Bang Club (formerly the Roadhouse, but presumably under new management). There were big names, including Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder, along with lesser-known acts like the Chromatics, Lissie, and Sharon Van Etten. Rarely does scripted or narrative television incorporate musical performance into storylines; even these played on the fringes of the action in Twin Peaks, in several episodes these performances were the only scenes set in the title city. The songs commented on characters and mythologies, occasionally pointing to the scope of the series (the Cactus Blossoms’ road-weary “Mississippi”) or to the metaphysics of the plot (Vedder’s “Out Of Sand”).

More than that, these scenes provided a social life to the town of Twin Peaks, offering useful glimpses of how the townspeople spend their off hours when they’re not tripping into new dimensions, solving murders, scratching mysterious rashes, or stuffing their faces full of cherry pie at the Double R. There was something comforting about seeing so many people dancing to the Veils’ distorted rock or Trouble’s skronking jazz, yet there was often unsettling drama off to the margins of the scenes, strange conversations or disturbing tableaux. (I still can’t get the shot of Charlyne Yi out of my head, the one where she’s crawling on the floor and screaming hysterically for no known reason.)

Lynch obviously chose these acts with great attention to their sound and lyrics, then filmed and edited their performances to suggest that live music might be just as evocative and even as cinematic as towering mountain ranges, otherworldly oceanscapes, or aging human faces trying to comprehend forces well beyond the grasp of human beings. It’s ironic, then that even on a show that featured grisly murders and malevolent entities performing unspeakable deeds, there was no sight more horrifying than the Bang Bang Club’s red neon sign, because it heralded the end of another episode. There seemed to be no worse event than seeing the words “Starring Kyle MacLachlan” pop up on the screen, often over the last chorus of a song. To wait another week — or ultimately another lifetime — to learn what happens to these characters was torturous. Music heralds the end, even if occasionally it tricked us, lulled us into resignation before delivering one more scene.

While we’re still trying to decipher the implications of that final episode (“What year is it?”), it’s a good time to reassess those musical performances and figure out how or if they worked. There are some spoilers in the text below! So with that in mind, proceed at your own risk.

14. Hudson Mohawke: “Human” (Episode 9)

Poor Hudson Mohawke. You get the call to be on Twin Peaks, you stand on the stage of the Bang Bang Club in front of two consoles, you play a song called “Human” that is obviously informed by David Lynch’s sound design. And then Lynch can’t shoot you in a very interesting way or even feature the full performance. Instead, you’re instantly subsumed into a scene of Sky Ferreira scratching that awful rash, before being unceremoniously ushered off stage for another round of Au Revoir Simone. It’s a shame the Glasgow DJ was relegated to an opening act rather than the headliner. On the other hand, “You know that zebra’s out again?”

13. Edward Louis Severson (Eddie Vedder): “Out Of Sand” (Episode 16)

According to the obsessive fansite Welcome To Twin Peaks, the Pearl Jam frontman was introduced to David Lynch via Laura Dern, who played the hell out of two versions of Agent Cooper’s amanuensis. She can do no wrong, so I’ll cut Vedder some slack for this performance, which may or may not be all in Audrey Horne’s poor head. The song is fine but forgettable, but there’s that goofy hat and those too on-the-nose lyrics: “I am who I am / who I was, I will never be again.” It’s a too obvious commentary on the changes we’re witnessing in these characters, especially since he’s introduced using his birth name, so it’s like listening to someone explain an easy theory as though it was some profound observation.

12. Nine Inch Nails: “She’s Gone” (Episode 8)

Episode 8 has already been called the greatest episode of any television show in the history of the medium, and the praise is apt… with one small caveat. Nine Inch Nails provide a laughably self-serious performance showcasing a ho-hum new single, featuring Trent Reznor looking a bit like a moodier Bono and the band half-heartedly lip-synching behind him. Lynch may have a great history with the band (Reznor produced the Lost Highway soundtrack 20 years ago), but they sound too obvious, too over the top for the beauty and chaos of the episode and are easily overshadowed by the atomic bombs, skull-crushing woodsmen, and mutant fly-frogs. On the plus side, the MC adds a vestigial definitive article to the band name, and I will always refer to them, affectionately, as The Nine Inch Nails.)

11. James Hurley: “Just You And I” (Episode 13)

Shelley Briggs may believe that “He was always cool,” but there’s something compellingly tragic about this performance, which rehashes a tune James recorded in the original series with Donna Hayward and Maddie Ferguson (neither of whom are even mentioned in The Return). A quarter-century later he’s still using this one song to signal a tortured romance, this time with a married woman named Renee. Marshall’s falsetto is remarkably well preserved, and “Just You And I” provides a heartbreaking reminder that even some of the coolest and most beloved characters don’t move forward. Instead, they get stuck in an eddy of inertia, unable to move on, to grow up. James remains stuck in time, almost by the collective willpower of the audience.

10. Chromatics: “Saturday” (Episode 12)

The second Chromatics performance is an instrumental titled “Saturday,” reportedly off Johnny Jewel’s upcoming solo album Windswept. The band barely appears onscreen until the final measures of the song, mostly providing a soundtrack for two new characters to discuss the romantic entanglements of Angela, Clark, and Mary. The music recalls that yearning quality of Julee Cruise’s “The World Spins,” yet the scene, like so many at the Bang Bang Club, reminds you that there’s a whole world in Twin Peaks beyond the circle of characters that have become our favorites.

9. The Veils: “Axolotl” (Episode 15)

The title refers to a species of amphibian often called a Mexican walking fish — essentially a fish with legs, a mutant, an evolutionary oddity. It’s a fitting stand-in for all the tulpas and woodsmen and doppelgängers inhabiting Twin Peaks, and frontman Finn Andrews howls about them like a Beat poet, so alive to the perversities of this world that the band’s performance becomes magnetic instead of ridiculous. Obviously the song is based in Lynch’s clamorous sound design, but the Veils’ brand of industrial rock music plays so much better than the Nine Inch Nails not (only) because it’s co-produced by El-P but because it never takes itself so seriously. “A little nightmarish,” Andrews cries, “a little maudlin.”

8. Trouble: “Snake Eyes” (Episode 5)

David Lynch might be accused of nepotism for including his son Riley Lynch’s band Trouble in the fifth episode. But he’s up there alongside music supervisor Dean Hurley and Alex Zhang Hungta of Dirty Beaches, pounding out a discordant jazz-rock number not unlike what the duplicitous protagonist of Lost Highway made his living with. But the family connection makes sense, as Trouble soundtrack the violent introduction of Richard Horne, who (spoiler) turns out to be the son of Bad Coop.

7. Au Revoir Simone: “A Violent Yet Flammable World” (Episode 9)

The Brooklyn trio’s second appearance was anticlimactic, especially after the fumbled Hudson Mohawke performance and our first glimpse of Ferreira’s rash. But the song itself could have been written specifically for the series, with its dreams “of a place that’s calling me” and its foreshadowing of Cooper and Laura’s climactic moonlit stroll late in the series (“Your feet I’m following in the soft steps on a path the way you lead”). Lynch has an uncanny knack for repurposing pop songs as narrative commentary, and “A Violent Yet Flammable World” seems to sum up the show’s fascination with self-annihilation. Also, “Have you seen that penguin?”

6. Cactus Blossoms: “Mississippi” (Episode 3)

The original Twin Peaks was largely defined by its strange relationship to the pop culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s: schoolgirls in saddle shoes and sweaters, rebel boys in leather jackets. With their clean-cut image and their familial harmonies reminiscent of the Everly Brothers, the Cactus Blossoms are a throwback not only to the midcentury but also to the series’ earlier aesthetic, which was largely jettisoned on The Return. More than that, however, the Minneapolis band, fronted by brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, sings about driving south, navigating all those crooked letters and humpbacks, reminding you that Lynch is interested not just in one small town in the corner of the country, but in all of America.

5. Au Revoir Simone: “Lark” (Episode 4)

Onstage Au Revoir Simone are just three women standing behind keyboards. They’re stationary, barely moving, but Lynch shoots them with the same obsession he brings to the Trinity bomb or the convenience store, turning their small movements into plot points in the scene. In particular, Erika Forster gestures with her left hand, echoing the languid movements of Audrey Horne’s dance or possibly implying that she herself is The Arm. They quickly become more than just players: more like a chorus warning us of the horrors and joys to come. “I’ve crossed the line, I’ll point you to a better time,” they sing, as though they know where Cooper and Diane are headed. “Don’t ask, know that it’s done no good.”

4. Lissie: “Wild West” (Episode 14)

Judging by the way he screams her name, the MC is really stoked to have Lissie at the Bang Bang Club. Elisabeth Corrin Maurus has been hanging around for a good decade now, but nothing — not even her last album, 2016’s underrated My Wild West — quite prepared us for this performance. In Twin Peaks the song sounds louder, clearer, more desperate. “I’ve been living my life on the edge,” she proclaims, bouncing with a fidgety determination, then sings, “I’ll be fine, fine,” as though she’s still trying to convince herself. Lissie becomes a powerful avatar for some of the women in the show, particularly the women at the Double R, who are all pushed to such emotional extremes that they no longer feel like extremes.

3. Sharon Van Etten: “Tarifa” (Episode 6)

You barely notice when the credits start rolling halfway through “Tarifa,” a track from Van Etten’s 2014 album Are We There that she re-recorded for Twin Peaks. Her performance is so focused, so intense that barely anything can distract from it, as the song builds intuitively, with no verse nor chorus but an almost stream-of-conscious structure. It’s tempting to parse out the significance of her tie-dyed dress or lines like, “Send in the owl” or “I wish it was seven all night,” but the most remarkable aspect of this performance is how it emphasizes this current moment as the most crucial point in time. “The past dictates the future,” Agent Cooper tells us, but Van Etten anchors us in the present.

2. Chromatics: “Shadow” (Episode 2)

Something about this performance has been hard to shake. Partly it’s due to the mystery surrounding the band, who have been teasing their fifth record for three years now. Partly it’s due to the fact that they’re the first band we see at the Bang Bang Club, at the end of Episode 2, when we were still acclimating ourselves to this world. Maybe it’s that gorgeous crest of synths and Ruth Radelet’s soft-focus vocals warning us of the finality of what we’re going to see: “Take me down for the last time, for the last time, for the last time.” Even at the very beginning, Lynch is telling us we won’t travel this road again, and sure enough, he all but obliterated Twin Peaks in that final episode.

1. Rebekah Del Rio: “No Stars” (Episode 10)

Fans recognized the Mexican American vocalist from her performance in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, where she performed a Spanish-language cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” so beautiful it fractured the main characters’ shared fantasy. Hers is the longest performance in Twin Peaks, and it’s not hard to understand why Lynch gives her so much time. At the Bang Bang Club she remains a thoroughly mesmerizing presence onstage, with her dress inspired by the Black Lodge and the camera favoring long takes that emphasize the skill and talent in her performance. She has complete control over her instrument, enough to make the bilingual “No Stars” sound both hopeful and horrifying, as though Del Rio is conjuring the night Laura Palmer was brutally murdered.

BONUS: Harry Dean Stanton: “Red River Valley” (Episode 10)

One of the defining characteristics of Twin Peaks: The Return was lynch’s willingness to just live in a scene for a while, to draw it out to unpredictable lengths. We get long unbroken shots of characters driving or walking or arguing about something obscure. We get a guy sweeping up at the Bang Bang Club for the duration of the Booker T & the MGs hit “Green Onions.” Perhaps the best of these lingering shots is a casual performance by 91-year-old Harry Dean Stanton strumming a guitar and singing the old country tune “Red River Valley.” The performance is so unself-conscious you have to wonder if Stanton even knew he was being filmed. First glimpsed in Fire Walk with Me and fleshed out for The Return, his character is the honorable soul of the series, as forthright as Cooper and as dependable as Deputy Andy, and this scene suggests music as an ennobling force in Twin Peaks.