Red Dead Redemption 2 will be remembered for its astounding scale and boundlessly immersive open-world. But at the heart of Rockstar’s award-winning western from 2018 is actually a very small story. Arthur Morgan, the video game’s main character, is a beleaguered cowboy stuck in the clutches of a megalomaniacal kingpin. Arthur’s not a good man himself. But Dutch van der Linde, and the gang of barbaric criminals to which Arthur is shackled, are far worse. The downtrodden outlaw knows he is beyond repentance, and many of the game’s narrative devices seek to convey this chilling sense of doom. But the mortal desolation of Arthur Morgan is captured most elegantly by Red Dead Redemption 2’s fantastic in-game soundtrack.
The original soundtrack for RDR2, which Lakeshore Records and Rockstar Games released Friday, is a collection of 13 tracks produced by 11-time Grammy winner Daniel Lanois. The album is one of two soundtrack compendiums being released by Rockstar. This one features the game’s vocal performances from artists such as Willie Nelson, D’Angelo, and Rhiannon Giddens. The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2: Original Score, a companion album being released later this summer, features the instrumental compositions of Woody Jackson.
“Music is part of the DNA of the company,” Ivan Pavlovich, Rockstar’s director of music, told me over email. Pavlovich has helped develop the rich and memorable soundtracks of Rockstar’s games for over 15 years, including the massively popular Grand Theft Auto V. Pavlovich says music is a “huge part of what makes the tone of each game unique,” with the first conversations about RDR2’s soundtrack happening “very early on” in the game’s development. “To us, music is just as important in creating an atmosphere as the lighting or the graphics of the story,” Pavlovich said.
Since the medium of gaming is still so young, most titles aren’t expected to acknowledge decades of cinematic genre work done before them. Halo did not have to pay homage to anything in particular. Fortnite wasn’t expected to address any one narrative style. This couldn’t have been further from the truth for RDR2. Rockstar’s unfathomably ambitious western epic was born out of an endlessly long line of films that explored the outlaw way of life in young America. And with each of these films came a classic soundtrack, some of which have become so iconic that they’ve transcended the screen to become phenomena in their own right—like Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack for The Magnificent Seven. But for Pavlovich and his creative team, the focus was less on paying tribute to masters of western soundtrack and more about finding their own sound.
“The original Red Dead Redemption was more heavily influenced by traditional and spaghetti western sounds,” Pavlovich said. “Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place across a huge part of 19th-Century America, from the heartlands and down into the South, as well as into the West, and so the palette of sounds to work from was naturally more diverse to begin with. But we also really wanted to define our own western score. Working with more modern artists like saxophonist Colin Stetson, electronic producer Arca, or Indonesian band Senyawa and Mario Batkovic—they added these incredibly unique elements that almost take the music beyond the western genre, while at the same time it’s distinctly ours.”
To find the singular auditory texture of the songs for RDR2 to pair with Jackson’s expansive score, Pavlovich needed a secret weapon: Lanois, a longtime curator of Americana music who helped carve out the modern American songbook’s Mount Rushmore with musicians like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson. Lanois’s sound, Pavlovich told me, was the ideal “throughline” for the game’s songs and Rockstar’s “main inspiration” for RDR2’s soundtrack; it “connected to the characters, to the game, and to the world,” according to Pavlovich.
Lanois was instrumental in getting to the heart of the complex pile of brutish darkness and misery that is Arthur Morgan. Arthur is something of an enigma—a mob enforcer-like character who both reviles his kingpin yet loves the gang family to whom he’s cursed to ride alongside. “Not only does it help put you inside Arthur’s head,” Pavlovich said, “But there’s another layer of it that is a reflection of how you actually play the game yourself.”
Guarma, RDR2’s most stunning and controversial sequence, shows Arthur and a few members of Dutch van der Linde’s crew get shipwrecked on a savage island off the Cuban coast, kicking the game into its long final act. The gang gets tortured, nearly mutilated, and then narrowly saved by political activists, whom it subsequently helps to liberate the oppressed village before escaping back home. When Arthur returns from Guarma, he is a devastated man. Tired. Bruised. And burdened with a sad truth: Dutch van der Linde, the gang’s leader, has gone off the rails. And with him, Arthur’s hopes for a peaceful life. Our hero is doomed. When you, the player, return from the island, there’s a horse by the road. You get on the horse, knowing there’s only one thing left to do: Ride back home.
As you ride, the periphery of Arthur’s vision starts to blot out. His focus narrows. The world becomes gray. And then, out of nowhere, a D’Angelo song kicks in. “May I…stand unshaken…amidst…a crashing world?” Riding all the way back to camp, D’Angelo utters a soulful, poetic mantra, singing something between a battle cry and an elegy. As the young nation of America rises out of its menacing foundations, Arthur’s world falls to pieces. But Arthur, with his stubborn will and thimble of moral decency, keeps going. It’s all he can do. It’s a sublime narrative moment that’s among the best gaming has ever offered. The song “Unshaken” is transporting, yet so tuned-in to Arthur’s plummet toward damnation, somehow encapsulating the entire tragedy of outlaw life in RDR2.
For the uninitiated, it may come as a surprise that the legendarily elusive D’Angelo would appear in a video game, of all places. But according to Pavlovich, the soul music icon was always on the list of “dream contributors.”
“When we started working with him, things fell into place very quickly,” Pavlovich said. “He’s got this beautiful falsetto that he uses for most of his songs, and so we definitely asked that he use a lower register. His talking voice is absolutely incredibly beautiful too, and we wanted to capture that more than his traditional soul, R&B sound, and it turned out better than we could have possibly imagined.”
Video game soundtracking is still an emerging medium that barely receives respect, unlike its cinema counterparts. But that’s beginning to change. Bear McCreary, the well-known film and television composer behind Battlestar Galactica and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, entered the fray with his ravishing orchestral soundtrack for God of War last year. Koji Kondo, the original mind behind the iconic Super Mario Bros. sound, returned for Super Mario Maker 2 with brand new music. Mortal Kombat 11‘s soundtrack was a high point for the series’ already-renowned music, boasting an impressive array of genres hailing from all over the world. Today, game soundtracks stand as some of the greatest works of modern orchestral music to date—and, with all the millions of people playing video games, they are easily among the most consumed orchestral music of our time. And certainly, millions listened as they played through RDR2.
The music of Red Dead Redemption 2 elevates the title, but also legitimizes it within America’s storied catalog of western works. May I…stand unshaken…amidst…a crashing world, the mantra of the game’s most profound soundtrack moment, speaks to the heart of the western genre. It proves that, when all’s said and done, the outlaw story still resonates deep into the foundations of Americana.