A River in Big Little Lies

Been traveling these wide roads for so long

My heart’s been far from you

Ten-thousand miles gone

Oh, I wanna come near and give ya

Every part of me

But there's blood on my hands

And my lips aren’t clean

–––

The cast of Big Little Lies

I, like half of gay-male America, watched the superbly disturbing HBO series Big Little Lies. The show was a powerhouse of big actors like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, (gay icon) Laura Dern, and the semi-newcomer (and oft-scene stealer) Zoë Kravitz. Big Little Lies is ultimately a story of varying forms of abuse and survival, but the main character of the series, some would argue, was not the A-list celebrity cast, but the music that hung thickly to every to scene. The soundtrack is superb and fitting for a powerful story and used to full effect in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s show. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber writes that:

There’s no composer for Big Little Lies, and it has no orchestral score. Instead, pop songs—rock, soul, R&B, tending toward classic-radio picks—intrude consistently. And a large percentage of this music is, in one way or another, diegetic: When the audience hears a song, that often means someone in the show is hearing it, too. But once a track has been introduced into this world by a character, Vallée freely cuts to characters elsewhere in the world for striking tonal juxtapositions.

One song called to me in particular, and no it wasn’t the anthemic Martha Wainwright song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” or Zoë Kravitz impressive cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t,” but Leon Bridges winding song “River.”

Leon Bridges

I’ve listened to Leon Bridges album before, yet somehow his debut album's final track was missed by me. In episode 2 of the series, it takes center stage as Witherspoon’s character’s young daughter, Chloe, shares his work. Kornhaber also makes an interesting point when he claims the song is meant as a salve for the characters – that the music being played is always meant as more than what it seems. Kornhaber goes on to say that:

Chloe plays Leon Bridges’s “River” a lot, but she does it to foster affection—between her parents, or Ziggy and his schoolyard maybe-rival Amabella (Ivy George).

Chloe herself is the otherworldly, beyond-her-years spiritual DJ of Big Little Lies. In the show’s very first scenes, she announces that she wants to one day be the head of a record label, and she guesses correctly that Ziggy is named for a David Bowie character. Later, she counsels her dad to pick an obscure Elvis Presley tune to perform at the upcoming fundraising gala. The biographical source of her expertise isn’t yet clear—maybe it won’t ever be. But her love of music seems like a beacon of simple, positive passion in a show otherwise defined by darker, more complex desires. Her personality and Ziggy’s name are signs of a matchup between the power of music and the nature of childhood.

I found an article that specifically reviewed the use of Bridges “River,” in the episode, yet it focused solely on the show-side of things. The article, found in Atwood Magazine, aptly claims that “Big Little Lies brilliantly uses “River” by Leon Bridges to show the influence music has in changing perspective and bringing even the most unlikely of pairs together.” The problem I find myself facing, is the meaning behind Bridges’ lyrics, and not in how beautifully the song sounded. When you hear him describe what inspired the song in an email to NPR, it becomes clear:

A river has historically been used in gospel music as symbolism for change and redemption [...]. My goal was to write a song about my personal spiritual experience. It was written during a time of real depression in my life, and I recall sitting in my garage trying to write a song which reflected this struggle. I felt stuc