Feature | August 12, 2014
Explaining The Garden State Soundtrack


garden state zach braff natalie portman

Ten years after the seminal soundtrack’s release, we look back at what made the thirteen-track collection a generational touchstone and how, for better or for worse, it stands today. Words by Allie PrescottNate ScottJustin McCarthy and Bryce Rudow.

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How do I explain this to my children?

Nate ScottI do not know how I will explain Garden State to my son.

I don’t have a son, I should say, but maybe one day I will, and maybe one day he will go through a brief phase when he gets interested in stuff his dad likes. I had a similar phase myself as a teenager, which explains the summer my dad excitedly played me Jimmy Cliff and Steely Dan records and I tried to excitedly listen to them. (The Cliff stuck with me. The Dan did not.)

And that day I might play my son the Garden State soundtrack, and try to explain to him how important the movie was to 18-year-old me. It was so important that I basically directed, filmed and edited a 20-minute ripoff of the movie for my senior art project. (It was terrible.)

He will listen to the soundtrack. He will watch the film. He will think the soundtrack is OK and think the film sucks. And I won’t know how to explain it to him.

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I know this because I recently re-watched Garden State and it truly is an embarrassing film. The jokes are flat and the plot comes equipped with a Thor hammer to smash you over the head to FEEL THINGS and the “deep” lines (“Do you know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal? I make a noise, or I do something that no one has ever done before. And then I can feel unique again, even if it’s only for a second.”) sound more Jack Handey than anything meaningful or true.

Natalie Portman is lovely and Peter Sarsgaard does a convincing-enough job expressing pain, but it’s clear that the only thing holding this movie together is the soundtrack.

At the time, the soundtrack was so excellent and so out there, perfectly blending the line of emo-earnestness and classic acoustic rock, that it papered over the massive problems with the movie. When the soundtrack became dated, though, and it did (really only “New Slang” holds up among the newer songs on the album) the film was left bare. It’s a carcass.

Still, I can remember. I can remember an 18-year-old me listening to “New Slang” and “Such Great Heights” and “Only Living Boy in New York” and feeling things with an intensity I can’t ever hope to feel again. My son won’t be able to understand that, but soon enough he will find his version of that film, and the whole god damn thing will start all over again.

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Is it the soundtrack to our youth?

Allie PrescottThe internet characterizes Garden State as a drama, a comedy, or both, but the film also exudes an element of fantasy. In no other world do the implausible quirks and oddities of life in a plain New Jersey suburb seem so inviting. The scenes themselves aren’t wholly optimistic, yet the film is covered with a layer of something that has allowed its cult of young viewers to come away from it with a sense of elevation. Visually, that something was wacky, charming Natalie Portman putting on her epilepsy helmet, or the main characters screaming at the edge of a quarry just to feel alive. But that something was also hugely aural; it came in the form of the dozen or so songs that accompany the film.

The songs on the Garden State soundtrack are safe in their composition and instrumentation, but back in 2004, they were just underground enough that they made listeners (including this writer) feel incomprehensibly cool for knowing them. Each track has an understated yet epic sound of importance, as heard by artists from Coldplay to Iron & Wine. By pulling in music by artists from an earlier generation, like Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel, it’s tempting to peg the soundtrack as a well curated piece of brilliance, while in reality, these artists have been used time and again for their supposed timelessness. Like the film itself, the soundtrack is seemingly daring, but in hindsight, it’s full of mass appeal.

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It’d be easy to dismiss Garden State for being the audiovisual equivalent of what we now call a “basic bitch.” The song choices could be considered banal, and if the film is as autobiographical as Zach Braff claims it is, well, he’s got bigger issues. But other than the fact that we’re still talking about Garden State a decade later, it’s worth noting that Braff helped usher in an era when indie rock and pop became popular accompaniments to television, film and beyond. In the early ‘00s, the ears of young people became attuned to a new category of music, listening to songs from The O.C. and Garden State for the soundtrack to the routines and dramas of their daily lives. The reliable, pretty music made it all seem a bit more appealing before we had Instagram filters to convince us that everything is a little less mundane than it really is.

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How did it become a generational touchstone? 

Justin McCarthyFor cinematic sound designers and music supervisors, the Garden State soundtrack is the stuff of nightmares. The consummate auteur director’s approach to curating a soundtrack (i.e. copying and pasting your favorite pop songs into your movies) is a practice that leaves professional audio junkies jobless, and no doubt concerned re: their overall significance. The soundtrack’s unlikely and unquestionable success with consumers as a stand-alone album, one that would go on to sell a buttload of copies and earn that coveted “generational touchstone” sticker, must have ruffled more than a few feathers in the world of sound folks. But what could they do – boycott Starbucks?

It feels to me like the soundtrack became ubiquitous because the songs are (mostly) very good, but also because of the prescience of its form. This is an album for an iTunes generation – a diffuse and incongruous collection when considered as a whole, but compelling as a playlist because of its incongruities: why do The Shins get two songs? Why does a song by Coldplay, maybe the most well-known contemporary band in the free world, kickoff a track list that’s supposed to “change my life?” What’s the connection I’m supposed to read between downtempo loungetronica and earnest folk ballads? It’s kinda like Braff hit shuffle on his iPod and just said “fuck it, here’s the soundtrack.” Is it lazy, or totally in keeping with the zeitgeist, or both?

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To take a step back from all this big-picture framing I’m trying to do, let me just say that I love a ton of these songs. I love the sleepy elegance of “One of These Things First” and the buoyant affirmation of “The Only Living Boy In New York.” I’m capable of vibing pretty hard to “Lebanese Blonde” and “In the Waiting Line.” “Don’t Panic” is a song I used to hate, but now love, and I have the Garden State soundtrack to thank for that. More specifically, I have Zach Braff to thank for that. Sorry, sound designers of the world – as unprofessional as this whole enterprise seems, the songs really resonate with people, purported music critics (this guy) included. “In the Waiting Line” really hits home when you’re at Starbucks.

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Is it, in truth, a mixtape for all of us?

Bryce Rudow: A hypothesis: because of the Garden State soundtrack’s structure and its intrinsic ties to the narrative and characters of the movie, I think that more people experience this album in a similar way than any other album ever.

But first off, let’s stop kidding ourselves; while this is technically “a soundtrack album,” it’s essentially Zach Braff’s mixtape, made special just for us.

It basically came with a note telling a generation of semi-lost, overly self-aware individuals to zip up our too-tight hoodies, put a candle on, and listen to this because we’d be able to see our entire future and it would change our life, he swears. The fact that it is different artists and different songs placed in a very specific, very deliberate order makes it feel like each song was handpicked just for us as an individual recipient.

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So everyone, as individuals, learned to know how great a transition “Don’t Panic” into “Caring Is Creepy” is. Everyone used “I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” as their own personal soundtrack to at least one devastating breakup (and I for one maintain this is one of the saddest song ever written). Everyone individually even accepted that, like any mixtape made by a music nerd, it has two songs by the artist you have to hear more of (because it will change your life, he swears, remember?). This mixtape, like any mixtape, was constructed to elicit a specific series of emotions, and we as individual listeners, whether conscious of it or not, were guided down a specific emotional path that we probably naturally assumed was more unique to us (because that is what listening to music is) than it actually was.

On top of that, we are given actual characters and a story to mentally cross-reference with this album because it is the soundtrack to an actual 109-minute movie. And one that, like the soundtrack, is obviously meant to elicit a certain set of emotions. Thanks to Zach Braff and Natalie Portman checking out each other’s infinite abysses, we as listeners heard Iron And Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” as the perfect music to accompany innocent and beautiful love. We instinctively smiled when “One Of These Things First” came on because of the “ain’t life swell” mental image of the kids crossing the crosswalk hand-in-hand that immediately popped in our heads. For all these songs, we were using the same basic starting points for whatever emotional connections we then attached to it, which is a very rare phenomenon.

And because of this, these strong emotional connections with this album that my peers are writing about and that you’re feeling listening to these songs again after far too long are most likely more similar in nature than any other audience’s attachment to any other album.

We are a group of people that all miss the same imaginary place.