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Done & Dusted: Mica Levi – Under The Skin

We re-visit Mica Levi’s debut release, the soundtrack to Under The Skin

Mica Levi (they/them – Levi identifies as non-binary) is all the rage at the moment, having only just released their first pair of solo LPs, Ruff Dog and Blue Alibi. Until now, Levi’s talents were obvious mainly through their collaborative projects. Besides a big new push for their band in 2020, they also scored the entirety of Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology Small Axe, as well as the Oscar-nominated score for 2016’s Jackie

Despite their proximity to the big movie biz, Levi works on the fringe, and has a keen sense for mystery. They’ve made several solo and collaborative EPs, have continued to head up the band Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu & The Shapes), and have one foot in netlabel tricksterism – producing inimitable one-off releases on the Curl imprint along with friends including Coby Sey and Brother May. Be it cozy solo indie LPs or mega-soundtracks, Their music is always disjointed, unpredictable and addled with the hurt of love for family and friends. Like their contemporary and sometime collaborator Dean Blunt, her music is heartfelt, but it’s always buried beneath either a layer of irony or eerieness, or both.

Amidst the hype-cloud, we felt an urge to reminisce on their earliest solo LP: the soundtrack to Jonathan Glazer’s third feature-length, Under The Skin. In the film, Glazer cast Scarlett Johansson as an alien parasite on Earth, taking on the perfect visage of a beautiful woman – seducing, tricking and eating men in the city of Glasgow. Much like Johannson’s casting in her ‘artsiest’ role by far – which created a kind of meta-death-seduction, lulling us into a false sense of security by using the same pretty, famous face of mainstream comfort-flicks like ‘Avengers’ or ‘Don Jon’ – Levi’s score is uncanny, with one foot in regular old stringy hollywood horror music, and the other in weirder, further-out-of-body territories. This is exactly the kind of mystery we crave from Levi, and it’s great to know we can hear it in both their critically-acclaimed soundtracks and their homemade indie music.

In the film’s opening scene, we hear – but do not see – ScarJo’s Female alien learning English. Grotesque phonetic sounds morph in and out of extraterrestrial and human tones. Levi’s strings play tremblingly in the background, warding off any uncertainty that this moment has sinister implications. Meanwhile, a looming, black, liquid eclipse – some kind of black hole or torus – emerges from the darkness, suggesting something unfathomable by the human neurotype. Then, the hole suddenly becomes a human eye.

It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest the first minute of Levi’s track here – ‘Creation’ – is anything but alien. It’s the opposite, making use of that discordant tremble-string technique with classic horror soundtrack flair. But after about halfway through, formless tremolo becomes a wash of background noise. Perhaps it’s the overloaded bustle of a Glaswegian motorway, or just the hum of alien electrics. Whatever it is, Levi is able to move the music away from the ‘abstract’ of music, into the ‘concrete’ of noise. When the scene is alien, her music is abstract – alien to the real, and locked in the fantasy of the horror music archetype. When it isn’t – when the black hole becomes an eye – it’s a real and painful, sandpapery noise.

Later in the film, we see the husks of male bodies suspended lifelessly, wibbling about like car dealership tube figures. The Female is feeding. We hear a more energetic version of those same toneless strings – Levi’s track is called ‘Meat To Maths’ – while red lights flash, sucking blood into some kind of laser void. It gives off the feeling of an insatiable hunger, fulfilled by the high of feeding on men. The higher-pitched strings are what do it for us here; it’s a moment of climax for both the object and perpetrator of this horror. We’re freaked out, our adrenaline is rushing; the Female is feeding, and so is its. The music is its mind, and ours.

As the soundtrack progresses, though, it moves from psychopathic to sympathetic. ‘Love’, its popular cornerstone, plays back like a sober breakthrough. Speaking to IndieWire, Levi said: “there’s this love music, as she’s breaking through her humanity, based on this synth string chord I held onto for a long time. You’re starting with these darker chords, with the hunger and everything like that, and ending up at this very pure, very simple kind of chord.” But despite this mood of endurance Levi mentions, there’s actually a lot of sliding, glissando-ing dread in the track’s accompanying string part. That pitch glide is like losing control, and the fear we feel – humans and aliens alike – when falling in love for the first time. In the end, that fear is righteous for the Female, who must abandon her only potential human love out of inter-species disconnect.

Even lter, the Female takes shelter in a bothy. Levi’s accompanying track – the slow-droning ‘Bothy’ – rises out of the wilderness noise. Rain transforms into wind and woodwind, while the Female returns to nature, suspended in the Scottish tundra. Just as much as Levi’s soundtrack covers the unbelievable and the insane, it also works quite simple wonders. It makes us love the sight of the Female simply lying down and sleeping in a natural environment, just as much as we love watching her emerge from her dark gloop-void. 

As is the case with anyone who seeks to convey a sense of ‘mystery’ with what they do – from faceless UK hardcore producers who release music exclusively on white labels, to serial criminals who leave behind cryptograms – Levi secretly wants to be found out. They want you to work it all out, to listen between the lines. They want, eventually, for you to see behind the veil, which allows the artist to reveal themselves to the world slowly, rather than suddenly. They do the same thing to represent the Female in Under The Skin. Levi and Glazer put you through an ordeal in the form of a horrific story, so as to make you slowly look past the mystery of the alien’s black skin, into something deeper.

In Levi’s case, their mystery ’veil’ is the lo-fi, joking, indeterminacy of their solo music. But in the Female’s case, it is the black void, which allows her to become a cold, standoffish humanoid. Levi resonates with the Female. It makes absolute sense that someone who can make Blue Alibi and Ruff Dog can also make something so different; such a harrowing, gargantuan soundtrack. Who cares about how big or scary or unfathomable or unknowable or alien the Female is? She still feels something underneath.

Jude Iago James