Best Served Whole: Kavinsky’s OutRun

Best served whole highlights albums that exemplify what an album can be: a cohesive work. Perhaps it tells a story, perhaps it doesn’t. Ultimately, these albums are worth listening to in a single sitting from front to back.


A tale of a boy bound to his car in a fiery crash, this album straddles the line between French house and synthwave in all the right ways. While the only song present on Outrun which garnered major recognition was Nightcall for its use in the film Drive, this album has some phenomenal songs throughout, and doesn’t have any notable lows.

This album also features the touch of Kavinsky‘s fellow French Musician and producer SebastiAn on the majority of the songs of the album, which lends a unique and powerful sound throughout. Additionally, the song Nightcall features production by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, most well known for his work as 1/2 of Daft Punk.

OutRun, named for the 1986 arcade game OutRun, takes cutting edge electronic production techniques and hearkens back to the sounds of the 1980’s. Strong synths are present on each song of this album, and while they are reminiscent of the older synths by companies like Yamaha and Roland, the sound is distinctly modern, crisp, and a treat for the ears.

Lyrically, the album touches on a variety of styles, from simple spoken words in Prelude and Endless, SebastiAn’s trademark distorted and pitched vocals on Odd Look, more rap-like vocals on Suburbia, vocoders in the same vein as Daft Punk’s paired with a slow female vocalist on Nightcall, and some funkier vocals on First Blood.

The shift in vocals underlines one aspect that sets this album apart: while it fits pretty squarely into its own musical niche, it isn’t afraid to take cues from a variety of genres and artists. The album is able to maintain a consistent sound throughout all while keeping it fresh. The only two songs which seem to tread on the same territory as each other are Prelude and Endless, which doesn’t detract from the album, in fact, this bookends the album quite well, acting like a prologue and epilogue respectively for this heavy album.

Outrun doesn’t dive too deep into story like an album such as Quadrophenia or The Wall, but it does still have a powerful overarching narrative, largely captured in Prelude and Endless.

The year was 1986.
He was a teenager like any other,
Dreaming of his heroes and in love with a girl,
But on a thunderous night along a ragged coast,
A mysterious red car came to him,
Its power lighting his eyes blood-red.

In a flash all was lost in the hell-fire of twisted metal.
When our hero emerged from the burning wreckage,
He and the car had become one, their souls spliced forever,
Leaving him to wander the night alone,
Invisible to everyone, but her.

– Lyrics of Prelude

Song by Song

Prelude sets the stage for this album. It gently eases you into this journey with a smooth narrator and an airy synth. And then – a heavy synth cuts into the track. Musically, the album starts off with a no-holds-barred barrage of synths and drums – before returning to one last section of narration. The track doesn’t stand too well on its own, but not because it is bad. It truly is the introduction to a complete album. It’s a bit too low key and not catchy enough to have its own legs, but as a sampler of things to come it works extremely well.

Blizzard, one of OutRun’s singles, pulls you right into an instrumental track that is more representative of the majority of the tracks on OutRun. A heavy guitar and synth kick Blizzard off, but the song knows to leave some space to breathe throughout, where it descends into lighter guitar plucks and more subdued synths. The drums on this track are one of the highlights, coming in real heavy without being overbearing. I especially love the whoomph of the kicks. This song is a bit repetitive on repeat listens, but really sets the tone for this album.

High screeching synths introduce and define ProtoVision, another one of the singles off of OutRun. The rising melody that these synths play are a highlight of the track. You don’t feel a need for vocals in this song either. The synths are well defined and play off of each other in this song to great effect. I personally think the synths get a bit too high and perhaps the track could have been mastered a bit differently, but overall it works quite well. Additionally, there’s a really cool mix of this song called the Red Sky Mix that I highly recommend listening to as well.

Next up is Odd Look, one of the highlights and another single off of this album. The synths fill out the whole audio spectrum quite well and are real smooth. Then, the first lyrics (beyond Prelude) of OutRun kick in. These are some trademark SebastiAn vocals. Distorted to the point where it almost sounds more like an instrument than a voice, but you can still make out the words. It’s a really unique and interesting vocal style and one of my favorites. The chorus features swirling vocals that are practically hypnotic. Additionally, this is a great song that you could use to introduce friends of yours who are a bit more pop-focused to Kavinsky and OutRun, as Kavinsky and The Weeknd collaborated on a different mix of this song. While I personally prefer the original mix, it is definitely worth a listen just to hear how different of a sound you can get on this song.

Rampage sounds like the music for a chase scene straight out of a cheesy neon-filled 80’s flick. You can feel the rubber burning and see neon lights racing by. It feels like a race against time. A song with a premise like this could have been poorly executed, but in this case it’s not. This track doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

I’m torn about Suburbia. The synths and drums are real smooth, there’s nothing that stands out as obviously bad with the lyrics, but I just feel like a different vocalist would have done wonders for this song. By no means is this song bad, but the rapping just doesn’t have very good flow. This song comes could have been one of the best songs on the album, the concept is great, but the vocalist pulls this song down. It’s not bad but it could be so much more. It fits in well within the album, and is refreshing, but it’s largely forgettable. I’d consider this the lowest point of the album, but if this is the worst an album has, then it’s a damn good album.

Testarossa Autodrive pulls you back in with an intense synths and masterfully crafted drums. I feel like I’m speeding along with OutRun’s protagonist in his red Ferrari Testarossa thanks to this song and damn, is it nice. The song keeps the pace up but never makes you feel tired. Heavy kicks round out the sound well here too. Frankly, I wish this song was longer because it gets me hyped up.

061 - Ferrari Testarossa - Flickr - Price-Photography.jpg
A red Ferrari Testarossa. Source

And then we get Nightcall. This single is the most famous song off of the album and with good reason. A slower synth buildup lead into a vocoder reminiscent of Daft Punk (this song was produced by 1/2 of Daft Punk). Lovefoxxx provides the smooth vocals here too. Seriously, this is just one smooth song that I just have to tell you to listen to. If you really like this song Kavinsky uses a different mix of it as the first song in this DJ set. It’s quite a bit more upbeat and I wish there was an official release of this mix since it really does give the song a whole different vibe.

Deadcruiser is a melancholic instrumental song that flows really well as a followup to Nightcall. Various synths ease into and out of this song, providing a cool but vibrant song that exemplifies what synthwave really can be. This song also makes good use of a stereo setup, adding some additional depth to an already well crafted song.

While OutRun is very cohesive as a whole, the second half does a phenomenal job at feeling interconnected. Grand Canyon brings back in some of the higher synths from earlier in the album and bumps the BPM up a bit from Deadcruiser. It feels airy, almost like the listener is gliding. The strong but not overbearing use of an electronic drum set here is a highlight.

First Blood is my favorite song on this album. It kicks up the BPM a bit more from the previous song and throws in some really funky and nice vocals. My biggest complaint is that I feel this song is too short. I would love to hear a five minute or so version. The use of heavy electric guitars works way too well on this one. The synths are a bit more subdued behind the vocals, but that only makes them seem even better on this song. There’s a really light higher synth in the background that’s one of my favorite elements on this album as well. I’ve listened to this song on repeat many, many times. It’s just that good.

Roadgame is the second to last song, but it really acts as the last song that can stand on its own. It is also another one of the singles. Roadgame throws in some synths that sound reminiscent of a string section and it works well. Those synthetic strings pair well with the sweeping synths that fill out the rest of this song. The drums are real bouncy on this one too, making it a real treat. The song truly is just beautiful, acting as a nice conclusion to this synth heavy masterpiece.

And, in the end, there is Endless. Slowing things down and bringing back our narrator from PreludeEndless is the perfect ending to this album. Slow synths and drums round out OutRun. This sounds like it could have been lifted from Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner. It ends the album quietly, and meticulously.

They say a flap of a butterfly’s wing can doom your fate,
That the roads sometimes take back what it had given,
But true love never dies,
And now you know how the legend of the Deadcruiser was born.

But what you don’t know,
Is there’s a gap between living and dying.
Some say they’ve seen the Deadcruiser in a flash of lightning around the shadowy curves of the highway.
Some say he was just a kid who met his fate in a fiery crash.
But anyone fool enough to venture out onto to that treacherous road should know one thing –
There’s no turning back.

– Lyrics to Endless

The Deeper Meaning

OutRun brings depth and a layer of storytelling to electronic music that most artists of these sort of genres just can’t achieve. Sure, it isn’t a full-on rock opera, but there’s certainly some depth present that warrants a discussion. The reference to a flap of a butterflies wings in Endless is a clear allusion to the butterfly effect and, more generally, chaos theory. The gist of the butterfly effect is that small actions can have drastic effects, effects that may even doom you as suggested by Kavinsky. In OutRun, our protagonist is just a regular teen, but through a single encounter his life is changed – he becomes the Deadcruiser. His fate is sealed through a singular event. This can evoke questions like: how set is fate?

Endless doesn’t leave us there. We are presented with lyrics which state that “there’s a gap between living and dying”. Most religions focus on life and after-life, but there is one notable exception that I’m aware of: Tibetan Buddhism.  If you’re not familiar with this religion, it’s the religion of the Dalai LamaTibetan Buddhism refers to this intermediate state “between living and dying” as bardo. This hints that the protagonist of OutRun is grappling with his existence in a chaos driven, Ferrari fueled bardo.*

In Endless, we also get the lyrics “true love never dies”. In fact, the lyrics of most of the other songs focus on some aspect of a relationship with some mysterious girl, as indicated by the final line of PreludeSuburbia gives us a glimpse into the relationship between our protagonist and his Ferrari, but doesn’t seem to have too much substance to it. Nightcall brings some mystery back into the story. The lyrics played out by the vocoder seem to be those of our protagonist:

I’m giving you a night call to tell you how I feel.
I want to drive you through the night, down the hills.
I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear.
I’m gonna show you where it’s dark, but have no fear.

– Vocoder Lyrics on Nightcall

And lyrics of the female vocalist are those of “her”:

There’s something inside you
It’s hard to explain
They’re talking about you boy
But you’re still the same

– Female vocals on Nightcall

Nightcall bounces back and forth between these sets of lyrics, like a conversation. It’s clear that our protagonist loves “her” and this must be what he is telling “her”. So then, what is it that she doesn’t want to hear? What darkness is the Deadcruiser going to introduce “her” to? She clearly has some feelings for the Deadcruiser, but he’s “still the same”. Nightcall raises more questions than it answers, but fortunately First Blood provides more clarity to what is happening:

Let’s go.

As the lightning strikes you’ve got to start the fight!
You’re shifting gears, [unintelligible], you step through the night!

I know you!
I know you!

Heaven, there’s a thunder deep inside of you!
It makes you think it’s all a dream, it cannot be true!

Wheelin’ hell!
Wheelin’ hell!

Just call me, I’m alone!
Just call me, I’m alone!

At least I know what we’ll do.
They can’t break your heart again.

Open my love and now my desire,
I see you think that it’s not real but I’m still alive!

I know you!
I know you!

And when the power comes from deep within,
a never-ending story that will never begin.

Wheelin’ hell!
Wheelin’ hell!

Just call me, I’m alone!
Just call me, I’m alone!

At least I know what we’ll do.
They can’t break your heart again.

That’s enough.

– Lyrics to First Blood

The lyrics to First Blood bring the album together. It ties together the narration contained within Prelude and Endless, and puts together the other pieces of this album. This song ties back into Nightcall, with the line “just call me, I’m alone!” This allows us to complete the story of the album: while in Nightcall our protagonist was “still the same”, in First Blood our protagonist has grown. Now, Deadcruiser will “start the fight”. Deadcruiser has found “her”, indicated by the usage of “we’ll” as well as the fact that “they can’t break [his] heart again”. It also suggests that whatever Deadcruiser told “her” in Nightcall had a truly profound impact with the lines like “it cannot be true!” While the “something you don’t want to hear” is never explicitly stated, First Blood offers further evidence that it is strongly related to Bardo, the gap between life and death.

We have explicit references to both Heaven and Hell in First Blood, tying in further with the Bardo that is OutRun. In fact, First Blood contains an allusion to a Buddhist concept closely related to Bardo known as Saṃsāra in the line “a never-ending story that will never begin”. Saṃsāra doesn’t have a beginning or end, as does the story of the Deadcruiser. Additionally, Saṃsāra literally means “wandering”, which is what the Deadcruiser literally does, as stated in Prelude where our protagonist is left to “wander the night alone”.

The endless knot, a representation of Saṃsāra.

And so, we’re presented with the story of the Deadcruiser. It’s a love story – as indicated by the lyrics of most the songs off this album – but it’s also one fraught with perils and trials. Kavinsky takes us on an adrenaline and synth fueled adventure that begins in a death of sorts in a hell-fire and takes the listener through a neon-clad Bardo – confronting the concept of Saṃsāra in this journey. Chaos abounds. But ultimately it’s the story of a teenager bound by fate to his red Ferrari, searching for love between life and death. It’s one hell of a good album too.


* You might argue that this is a bit of a stretch, however, there’s strong evidence to suggest that at least SebastiAn was familiar with Bardo prior to his production on OutRunOutRun was released in 2013. In 2012, SebastiAn collaborated with director Gaspar Noé on a music video. Of course, one of the most well known works of Gaspar Noé is 2009’s Enter the Void, which prominently features Tibetan Buddhism.


Thanks

While I’d love to thank everyone who has had an impact on this piece or the ideas presented, that would be very onerous and potentially impossible. I’ll keep it short. I’ve had some conversations about this album with my friends Louis and Cooper, which were important in coming to the musical conclusions in this piece.

With regards to some of the conclusions reached in the meaning of this album, I have to give thanks to Abel and Luis for all sorts of talks that touch on Buddhist concepts. I’m sure I’m missing some people there too, but whatever. I also need to thank Anneka who suggested a book to me a bit ago that talked about stuff like this.

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