It’s difficult to discuss the soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” without having actually seen the film. So many important aspects of the songs, sequencing and content are often tied to their context in the film, and a viewer’s experience may be different than a listener’s. The soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” comes out six weeks before the film, and the Coens seem confident that the soundtrack is strong enough to stand on its own. Their assumption is not incorrect, as their collaboration with songwriter T Bone Burnett is a gentle, folksy time portal to 1960s New York. The Coens previously worked with Burnett on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which sold seven million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001.
Oscar Isaac stars as Llewyn Davis, a folk singer attempting to navigate the New York folk scene of the 1960s, and performs many of the songs on the album. Isaac does a good job, especially on the opener, a melancholy rendition of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Isaac also collaborates with Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons on a cover of “Fare Thee Well,” one of two versions of the song on the soundtrack.
Another draw to the album is the several contributions from Justin Timberlake. Timberlake makes for a fine folk singer, especially on “Five Hundred Miles,” a rousing collaboration with Carey Mulligan and Stark Sands. Timberlake also joins Mumford on “The Auld Triangle,” an oft-covered Irish standard. The concept of a Timberlake/Mumford collaboration is interesting, but it is not as enjoyable as the album’s other tracks. “Girls”’ Adam Driver also makes a hilarious guest appearance alongside Issac and Timberlake on “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
Fans of Timberlake, ’60s folk and Mumford & Sons will find a lot to like in this collection of repurposed folk tracks. But as the soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” winds down with a previously unreleased recording of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” it is apparent that nothing on the album comes close to capturing the spirit of those sounds as well as the actual songs do. As a result, the Dylan track feels a bit out of place on an album that likely won’t reach the same popularity “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” did years ago.