At first, Cuphead looks simple. A mug and a cup with human limbs. Or rather hoses. A playful music that reflects the era of experimental beginnings of both animation. But when Walt Disney was trying to create Mickey Mouse, he was limited by technical constraints. So he used the most popular animation technique at the cusp of the 1920s and 30s – rubber hose. Simplified shapes created by funnelling down more complex factors. And the same goes for Cuphead’s music. Under the surface there’s even more going on than what meets the ear. It’s like a tribute to the media of that time.
There are 110 musicians coming in and out the stage.
Generally the music for Cuphead, lyrics and arrangements written by Kristofer Maddigan sound like a big band was playing it along the high-pace race of two cup-headed brothers. And for the DLC – The Delicious Last Course – the band is really big, indeed. Bigger than one might think. There are 110 musicians coming in and out the stage. Literally. Due to the pandemic restrictions, they needed to record it in little groups in multiple studios which was directed by a recording engineer, Jeremy Darby. And in fact, this approach and this scale match the scale of the DLC which should rather be called a new game.
Such a range of instruments, wider than in the first game, is also hearable in a variety of styles weaving in and out. Maddigan takes the then-jazz music, places it in the centre of the world and adds bricks around it. And each brick comes from a different factory of the 1930s’ and even 1940s’ culture, but is painted in a colour of something else. For example, gypsy jazz-like staff. Songs like Chef Saltbaker or Inkwell Isle Four bring some of Jean “Django” Reinhardt’s. The other time, we have a nearly bal-musette, paris-wise track (Porkrind’s Provisions) with piano and accordion.
Then, Maddigan explores even less obvious regions. King Of Game’s Castle in a rococo version chunks a handful of the Baroque period’s vibe in. He also has Hammond B3 on board (An Ominous Stroll). The further we go into the album the further away from jazz we wander. Also, the mood changes dramatically. It gets heavier and darker yet oniric and unpredictable. And the melodic flow is intentionally disordered in swirling woodwinds and instruments seem to try to surface again (The Finishing Touch). This part of the album is like a pushing and shoving between old horror-like organs and a playful big band. It’s a wonderful expression of a final fight.
It seems that Maddigan had a bit of a film scoring approach. He composed each piece of music for each level, so while in game, the music follows the player, but it doesn’t react to every action. And it doesn’t have to. It’s tangled with visuals within one realm, but even outside the game it’s still complete. I think the second BAFTA Award for music in Cuphead may be around the corner.