(Lakeshore Records; 2011)
By Calum Marsh | 10 October 2011
If, like me, you regard terms like “retro-themed” and “‘80s throwback” with a healthy degree of skepticism, you’d be forgiven for approaching this soundtrack pretty cautiously. But if, like me, you’ve already seen and totally adore Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-praised genre pastiche, your skepticism was declared dead right around the fifth time you caught yourself singing College’s improbably addictive “A Real Hero” in the shower. Because this is that rare breed of soundtrack: these songs suit the tone of the film as much as they help establish it, and they’re married to the images they accompany so effectively that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the two later. An addiction to at least a couple of these songs has become something of an inevitable byproduct of seeing and admiring the film, and so in a sense the task of reviewing this soundtrack is simple: how much you’ll enjoy this as a stand-alone record is entirely contingent on whether you’ve seen and how much you liked Drive, but if you have and if you really did then you probably already know how great this is.
But then you probably already know, too, how poorly structured this thing sort of had to be. In essence, Drive features two complete soundtracks, each distinct from the other in both tone and style: first there’s the moody, Badalamenti-like ambient score provided by film composer (and ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer) Cliff Martinez, which injects the film’s quieter moments with a palpable sense of tension and unease. More memorably, however, is the film’s tasteful selection of gleaming electro-pop jams, most of which are very obscure and all of which are excellent. The aforementioned “A Real Hero,” Drive‘s unofficial theme song and so sort of the star of the show here, comes to us from a synthpop group named College, who could plausibly launch a career on the strength of this single alone. (Last.fm shows that “A Real Hero” rose from close to zero plays in August to about 1300 in the first half of September, right around the time Drive hit theaters; tellingly, almost every conversation I’ve had about Drive since its release has involved this song in some way.) A stylized, self-consciously saccharine pop song that should sound ridiculous but somehow doesn’t, “A Real Hero” sounds like the song Stars always wanted to write but never could, one as endearing and ethereal as the best of their work but with way better synths.
Desire’s “Under Your Spell” and Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” hit a similar aesthetic sweet-spot—a very narrow zone somewhere between wistful ’80s nostalgia and ultra-modern laptop wizardry; it’s one degree sleeker than chillwave and two degrees less terrible—but are just different enough that they don’t feel egregiously samey in succession. It’s a great run of pop songs and a nearly ideal way to kick off the soundtrack, even if the Chromatics’ tone-setting “Tick of the Clock” might have worked as well as an opener here as it did in the film. The problem is that Drive only features three pop songs of this kind, and when the soundtrack necessarily transitions from that very distinctive style to Riz Ortolani’s sweeping ballad “Oh My Love”—on loan, somewhat incongruously, from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)—the effect is a little jarring. In a film setting that’s fine, because the transition is made emotionally coherent by the movement of the narrative. But removed from its source and cobbled together as an album, it doesn’t really work; the effect feels like Shuffle when it should be like Genius.
For much the same reason, the back half of the soundtrack, where the entirety of Cliff Martinez’s ambient score has been slotted together in one seamless chunk, might as well belong to a different record altogether. What’s frustrating is that is the Martinez material is uniformly excellent, and actually works quite well, once divorced from the pop songs which precede it, as a stand-alone collection of understated instrumental pieces. The thing is, I don’t know that anything reasonable could have been done to amend this problem. There are too few pop songs scattered throughout the film to necessitate two separate, complete soundtracks, and given how easy it is to divide this material manually it’s probably about as functionally well-structured its current form as was ever even possible. That’s not unlike the film itself, in fact: its tone shifts abruptly, its parts sometimes seem stuck together incongruously, but every second’s really, really good.