Album Review: Kavinsky – Outrun

[Mercury; 2013]

What is it about nostalgia that so appeals to modern man, especially those who fancy themselves connoisseurs of ‘art and culture?’ Humans are reputed to be a forward-thinking species, driven by ambition and the restless of pursuit of future, unconquered horizons. Instead, as global culture accelerates in often alienating and frightening ways, we find ourselves gazing in reverse, fetishizing childhoods and technologies of halcyon days past. Eventually, that nostalgia becomes its own echoing tape loop, and some artists seem to exist on nostalgia alone, a lighter-than-air fabrication of nothing more than the tropes of old, refashioned to appeal to an audience jaded enough to cast a glance backwards as they reluctantly, uncertainly slip forward.

Thankfully, there’s times when you can simply enjoy the nostalgia trip without diving too deep into all the gory analytical details. These past couple of years its been the eighties, of course, as Miami Vice aesthetics (fast foreign cars, palm trees, neon brush script) have made a thunderous comeback, largely thanks to the film Drive, though roots can be found as far back as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The impeccably awesome soundtrack to Drive made notables of a few of its electro-thumping contributors, and one of these is French eighties-purist Kavinsky, whose eerie slow-jam “Night Call” memorably opened the film proper.

The French seem to have a knack for this sort of thing: cheesy analog synths and thickly warm drum machines show up everywhere from early M83 to Daft Punk and Phoenix. But Kavinsky embraces these cliches with the gusto of no one before him, and its strikingly mapped out. The backstory of the project is reminiscent of Charlie Sheen’s eighties cult classic The Wraith; boy meets girl, boy dies in flaming car wreck, boy fuses with car to become unstoppably powerful, boy re-meets girl to win back her heart. This is the ‘concept,’ if you will, of Kavinsky’s body of work.

The man’s even titled his first full-length (after a string of successful EPs) Outrun, and any of us who grew up battling that game or the similar Rad Racer in basement rec rooms will certainly be more than reminded of their legendary eight-bit scores by the tunes here. “Nightcall” shows up again here, because hey, why not, but there’s other gems to be found as well. From the eerie Beverly Hills Cop throb of “Deadcruiser” to the soaring hair-metal guitar theatrics of “First Blood,” these are the themes of every sports underdog movie, cheesy slasher film, and car chase flick rolled into one glamorous hot-pink package, all strutting white leisure suits and South Beach sands. “Rampage” is one of several tracks that effortlessly conjures Knight Rider, while tracks like “Protovision” head in a decidedly more Gilette Mach Three razor commercial direction. Cornball? Incredibly. But also impossibly fun. This is music that will change no one’s life nor re-awaken them to the sad, stirring majesty of the world and its trappings, but it will sate them like the very best junk food binge. Samples from World’s Deadliest Police Chases abound!

The only real misstep here is the unexpected pairing of Kavinsky and Mobb Deep rapper Havoc on the oddly-titled “Suburbia.” Speaking of nostalgia, anyone with even a faint trace of fondness for the grimy days of early nineties New York hip-hop knows what a formidable force behind the mic Havoc can be, but here he’s on auto-pilot (cruise control?) and the hackneyed lines about “coming to life in my fast, fast car” are true groaners. There’s certainly potential in Kavinsky’s wave-runner anthems for some killer hip-hop pairings, but this just comes across too awkward and lazy. It’s the only real time across the span of a thoroughly rewarding album that it seems to become what its detractors surely will dismiss it as: a novelty.

The question an album like Outrun begs, of course, is how can Kavinsky possibly follow this thing up in an interesting way? There’s only so much of this formula you can milk before the fun is drained from the festivities like a 3AM cocaine comedown. For now though, Outrun is exactly what it aspires to be: a fun retro-pop-dance album for those who like to drive fast through cities at night, perhaps behind a pair of sunglasses.