FX

The Legion Soundtrack Is A Trip Worth Taking

Composer Jeff Russo’s psychedelic work complements the FX series’s themes

Though the shows are drastically different in most ways, FX's Fargo and the network's new Marvel series Legion have remarkably similar approaches to music. In Fargo, which began airing in 2014, composer Jeff Russo — who also helms Legion's soundtrack — uses a wondrous orchestra to depict the show's mountainous, wintry geography with swooping, scenic string arrangements that suggest a feeling of awe and smallness. In Legion, the daunting peaks are within the psyche of the show's lead character, David Haller (played by Dan Stevens). Since he was a toddler, David has been convinced by doctors and relatives that the hallucinations and projections caused by his latent telepathic and telekinetic powers are symptoms of schizophrenia, and thus unreal, rather than genuine abilities produced by his mutant gene. After being defined by mental illness for most of his life, only to have the bubble suddenly burst, David questions his observable reality, just as we in the audience wonder how much we can trust the events we're watching.

If Legion sounds convoluted, well, duh. It's an X-Men spin-off, so multiple, interlacing timelines, parallel universes, and pointed sociopolitical messaging are all fair game. But the show uniquely reiterates these longtime themes by positioning the audience inside the troubled perspective of its lead character. Russo's sublime compositions — which have been available to stream as a 20-song soundtrack since late last month, and will be available in stores on March 24 — are a major part of this, daring the listener to engage with the flimsiness of our own senses. Even without visual imagery or dialogue, Russo's high-flying string quartets and psychedelic synth arrangements push us to hear an altered reality.

Russo's work for the Legion soundtrack invites us to consider the evolution of a single psyche, from twinkling beginnings to mind-shattering nadirs to moments of revelation. Things begin innocuously enough with "Young David," which plays out the hope of a new life, with atonal ambience lightly kissed by xylophone flourishes and twinkling pianos. A distant, muted bugle signals David's arrival in the world around the four-minute mark, and strings rise upward with the wide-eyed curiosity of a toddler reaching for the stars. The mood shifts on "David in Clockworks," as wordless, reverbed vocalizations introduce an element of menace. The album's third track, "174 Hours," ups the ante further: It opens with soft synths, setting a tone of quiet melancholy, before pivoting midway into loud, wordless vocals and maximalist orchestral runs that ratchet the anxiety to claustrophobic levels.

The soundtrack isn't necessarily an easy listen. This isn't an introspective or meditative instrumental album, or relaxing background music — it's a piece of art that demands attention. With some judicious trimming, it could work as its own entity apart from Legion. The metronomic drum ticks on "The Caper 2" generate a thick, broadening tension that's worth listening to even if you know nothing about the show. "Choir and Crickets" uses programmed cricket chirps to suggest a similar tension, then loops in sleepy choral harmonies to soften the track. There are superhero jingles here as well — this is still a Marvel franchise, after all. "Run" is formidable chase music that could be packaged with nearly any film or series involving a dramatically important footrace. The mid-album track "Clockworks" (not to be confused with the earlier "David in Clockworks") is a run-of-the-mill screech-and-squelch with little in the way of a distinct sonic character. Thankfully, these strictly functional tracks are among the soundtrack's shortest.

Russo is at his best when he's at his most playful — which often happens when the music is at its most fraught. "Seeing Things Hearing Things" sounds like it was written during a tense lie-detector test, with an undercurrent of mistrust running through the sterile electric pings. It's impressive to hear how Russo evokes unease with such simplicity. While listening to the nearly five-minute track, you start to imagine being interrogated by an unknowable stranger, as the vague silences, the scratch of the pen against the graph paper, and the discreet yet audible hurr of a machine begins to plunge the mind into madness.

Part of what makes the Legion soundtrack thrilling is that it doesn’t require telepathy — or even guesswork, really — to become enveloped in its world. In a sense, the soundtrack is a throwback, owing much of its genetic makeup to Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon. (Russo has even discussed purchasing the same synthesizer, the EMS VCS3, to get closer to the album’s warbly, analog psychedelic sound.) Much like that record, the Legion soundtrack succeeds by fucking with the listener. It answers questions with more questions, and presses the idea that our perceptions of time and material reality are sketchy and manipulable. It’s jarring, sometimes scary stuff, but the empathy that ultimately runs through the soundtrack makes this journey to the dark side of the mind worth the fright.