Even though the score he created for the movie ended up unused, Drive is the best thing that could’ve ever happened to Johnny Jewel. Jewel is the hazy-synthpop producer and multi-instrumentalist behind groups like the Chromatics, Glass Candy, and Desire. Over the past few years, he’s been one of the world’s leading Italo-disco revivalists, the guy whose various projects did as much to bring back metronomic synth-disco as anyone, anywhere. But those different projects tended to blend into one another, and after a few years, they’d come to seem pretty monochromatic and limited. Drive changed that. Director Nicolas Winding Refn might not have used the score that Jewel and Chromatics bandmate Nat Walker put together for the movie, but he did use a ton of tracks from the Chromatics and other Jewel-associated groups on the soundtrack, as well as a synth-pulsing Cliff Martinez score that probably owed Jewel some aesthetic debt. (And anyway, Jewel and Walker ended up releasing that unused score as Symmetry.) In Drive, Refn found a tough, luminous emotional context for Jewel’s music; of course that would be the sort of stuff that a soulfully tough romantic like Ryan Gosling’s character would listen to while making extremely skillful and daring escapes. And I don’t know if it’s because of Drive or what, but Jewel and his Chromatics bandmates sound suddenly emboldened on the new Kill For Love.
The first thing you need to know about Kill For Love is that it’s long: 17 songs, 91 minutes, ends in a 14-minute minimal-ambient instrumental called “No Escape.” Now that nobody uses CDs anymore, there’s really no reason not to make an album this long, as long as you’ve got enough material that you consider worth including. The 2007 Chromatics album Night Drive wasn’t an active-listening sort of thing; it was probably best heard as an evocative background pulse, one that would pull you in with a powerful piece of melody every so often but then release you and send you back about your business. Kill For Love works in a pretty similar way. Long stretches are instrumental, and the tick-tock beats and zoned-out vocals might get a bit boring if you were exclusively focusing on them. But that’s not how most of us listen to music, and the music on Kill For Love works in the same sort of way that Explosions In The Sky does. It fades into the background while at the same time making the colors all around us look a bit more vivid, making us feel as if we’re existing in some imaginary cinematic landscape.
Of course, that involves making extramusical brain-synapse connections. It’s no secret that Explosions In The Sky start to sound a whole lot better once you’ve been watching Friday Night Lights for a while; their winding guitar filigrees evoke the dusty Texan triumphs of the TV show that famously uses them. In just the same way, Kill For Love now calls up the glimmering, skeezy, beautifully brutal imagined Los Angeles of Drive, and I can’t quite imagine how the album would sound if I hadn’t seen the movie. But that’s really a moot point. If you haven’t seen Drive, what the fuck are you waiting for? See Drive! It’s great! Then listen to Kill For Love.
That said, though, Kill For Love has more stylistic sprawl that any Jewel-affiliated album I’ve ever heard. The album opens with “Into The Black,” the group’s the group’s confident and mostly synth-free cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black).” That’s a ballsy statement cover if ever there was one. “Hey Hey My My” is one of Young’s best songs, and it’s also a heartbroken elegy for punk’s past promise — and for extra associative points, it’s the song that Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note. In opening their vast 90-minute album by quoting that song, Chromatics are letting us know that they’re doing things bigger than before, and that they’re not considering anything sacred. And though they never do anything nearly that brazen again, Chromatics do draw themselves a bigger map than they’ve done before. The title track is an optimistic New Order sigh. “Streets Will Never Look The Same” is robotically Stardusty electro-soul. “Broken Mirrors” is the sort of icy instrumental pulse that Michael Mann used to use on his early-’80s soundtracks — exactly the sort of thing that Refn was paying tribute to in Drive in the first place.
Of course, plenty of the tracks here show that they can still do that old-school keyboard-droning Italo thump just fine, but those variations make a big difference. The final product still blurs into the background and helps you feel like you’re living in a movie, but those tracks give you the emotional cues that movies sometimes need. And this should go without saying, but it’s best heard at night, while you’re driving.
Kill For Love is out now on Italians Do It Better. Stream it below:
Other notable albums out this week:
• Beloved Bay Area rap godfather E-40’s massive three-album series The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil, which effectively disqualified itself from this column by being too much music for any human being to process in time.
• Meshuggah’s jittery, juddery math-metal opus Koloss.
• Mirel Wagner’s stark, haunted self-titled album.
• THEEsatisfaction’s chopped-up neo-soul debut awE NaturalE.
• The self-titled debut from Damon Albarn, Flea, and Tony Allen’s Rocket Juice And The Moon project.
• La Sera’s soft-glowing garage-pop effort Sees The Light.
• The Mars Volta’s heady prog thrashout Noctourniquet.
• Miike Snow’s glossy Swede-pop LP Happy To You.
• Oberhofer’s highly-touted bedroom-pop debut Time Capsules II.
• The self-titled album from Portishead producer Geoff Barrow’s indie-rap side project Quakers.