French actor and musician Vincent Pierre Claude Belorgey’s Kavinsky project, which dates back at least 2005’s pristine Teddy Boy EP, has always seemed like a fun time for French Touch musicians to gather and try out some sounds they maybe honed on one of their releases or perhaps are just trying out in a different venue.
The famous Drive Soundtrack cut, “Nightcall,” which actually precedes the film by a year, featured a marquee cast: Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo co-produced it, SebastiAn mixed it, and CSS’s Lovefoxx carried the hook. Synthwave pioneer Kavinsky’s cinematic 2013 debut album, Outrun, had SebastiAn’s production work all over it, along with vocal contributions by the likes of Tyson, the David Carradine-mimicking Paul Hahn, and rhyme-spewer Havoc.
On Reborn Kavinsky has exchanged a few members of the cadre, but the collaborative spirit still reins. This time he’s brought along the inimitable Sébastien Tellier, sometime Justice singer Morgan Phalen, and others such as Cautious Clay, Romauld, Kareen Lomax, and Prudence. On co-production and co-music writing for a fair amount of the record is Justice’s Gaspard Augé and multi-instrumentalist Victor Le Masne. Furthermore the entirety of Phoenix clandestinely worked their way onto the album (more on that later). SebastiAn returns for a couple cuts, too. There are others.
The team element is generally obscured in promotion for the album and its album art. I wonder if it’s because a lot of people online seem upset that Kavinsky isn’t some kind of singular genius who doesn’t need the help of others, not realizing that most of the artists we consider to be singular geniuses still had people working with them in some capacity to fully realize their vision: Prince had The Revolution and New Power Generation; Brian Wilson had his fellow Beach Boys; David Bowie had several regiments worth of collaborators — you get my drift.
The strength of the Kavinsky project is it is a highly focused and pressurized group expression of a certain French musical sentiment at a specific time in history. Virtually no one is an island, let alone Kavinsky. It’s silly to wish that on him when the end result is this good. On that note, let’s take a dive into the album itself.
The two-fer blast of opener “Pulsar” and the title cut make a pronounced statement that Reborn is not “just” another Outrun. The synth arps that fly around “Pulsar” live up to the track’s name, providing a rhythmic blast that gives way to a nuanced cinematic instrumental that functions well as the score to the opening sequence to this ear-film centering on Kavinsky’s Lazarus story. It’s obviously a Kavinsky cut, but it shows that this will be a far less abrasive or crunchy record than its predecessor. Relatedly, “Reborn” is a triumphant, hyper-melodic number with Romuald’s soaring vocals guiding the dynamic mid-tempo number through its role as a music for a title credits sequence. The cut weaves its way through a sense of melancholy and attainment.
Elsewhere, Reborn further shows a sense of compositional growth for Kavinsky. Take, for example, the ballad “Goodbye,” led by Tellier. The evocative piano part mirrors Tellier’s vocal melody atop a slow-burning R&B backdrop. The relative organic quality and earnest emotion make it sound more like something off the bearded maestro’s more recent album, Domesticated, crossed with his 2013 album, Confection, than a Kavinsky record.
Another cut, the delectably moody and sax-laden single “Zenith,” which features contributions from SebastiAn, comes off as a song from M83’s misunderstood 2016 album, Junk. Specifically, this song serves as a companion to “Go!” This is, naturally, a very good thing. Prudence’s tastefully processed vocals glide seamlessly over an emotive array of synths, electric guitar, and a drum machine, and Phalen’s chorus wail is poignantly meaningful with its lamentations. It’s a masterwork of downbeat blues paired with French electro-pop.
There are moments that are more overtly classic Kavinsky or synthwave (despite the fact that the man seems to hate the genre, or at least its name). Contrasting the downbeat blues of “Zenith” is “Vigilante,” which is another cut on which Kavinsky worked with Outrun co-producer SebastiAn. Perhaps because of that, the tightly-wound and kinetic minor-key strut sounds much more like that album than Reborn. However, there are enough of the elements of the new record to make this Phalen-led track essentially a bridge between the two albums’ worlds.
The biggest dose of pure synthwave comes from “Plasma,” which kicks off with synths straight out of 1980s action scores and features Phalen doing his best limited-octave hair-band vocals. I used the term “triumphant” earlier to describe much of this album’s sound and this cut is one of those that embodies that state of being. Similarly, the instrumental cut “Trigger” is a callback to the classic synthwave that Kavinsky inadvertently helped to invent.
Perhaps the most surprising number on the record is the closer, “Horizon,” a collaboration with Phoenix. It ends the album on a gorgeous and delicate note, pairing Kavinsky’s flare for ’80s pastiche with Phoenix’s impeccable ability to craft breathtaking soundscapes — invoking their score work more so than their studio albums. Tempered but nevertheless searing lead guitar cuts through a wash of colorful synthesizers and distant snares treated with a healthy dose of gated reverb. It’s a perfect closer.
Ultimately, Kavinsky’s new album was worth the wait. It might not be what some were expecting from him, but at this point he’s still living up the promise of his project: a showcase of the immense electronic music talent crammed into the confines of France’s inimitable capital. And in doing so, he brings to the fore the various French House, synthwave, and pop elements that have been hallmarks of the scene’s way for decades. It is, to repeat myself, a triumphant rebirth for the enigmatic musician and his similarly enigmatic project. “Nightcall” was a classic, but after more than a decade it’s nice to know he’s still making more of them.
Reborn releases Friday, March 25, but you can pre-order the various digital and physical forms right now via Fiction/Virgin Music France.