Sunday, March 16, 2014

album review: 'kiss me once' by kylie minogue

You know, for as much as I get annoyed by artists who don't understand their narrow range as performers, that's not saying that I find artists that have a limited skill set intolerable.

Far from it, actually, and this ties into my love of pop music - if you understand your strengths, you can work on honing that skill set into something truly potent, even if it never really reaches depth or intellectual transcendence. There's an argument to be made for music that knows what it is and works to be the best possible form of it, and that's why I have a certain amount of tolerance for shallow pop music - instead of making some grand edifying statement or approaching depth that's out of its league, it works on making the best possible example of its genre, and the music can be just as great.

Take Kylie Minogue for instance. Her music career began back in 1987 with her early albums backed by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman (the gentlemen behind the Rick Roll) and has tended to stick to one of two veins ever since: the fast-paced dance-pop track or cooing sex kitten love jams. And sure, you're not exactly getting a lot of depth in the sort of Europop in which Kylie Minogue specialized - the 'deepest' thing she's ever done was working with Nick Cave - but you did get a lot of great pop songs that got mainstream attention whenever the dance scene got popular on the charts. Thus, it's not exactly surprising her biggest career successes came in the very late 90s and early 2000s, when slick Europop briefly crossed onto the charts. 

And thus, it didn't exactly surprise me to see that Kylie Minogue was releasing a new album this year since her last album in 2010 - after all, given the rise of the festival scene, EDM, and even the modest disco revival of last year, it makes sense that Kylie Minogue would attempt yet another return to the spotlight, this time under the management of Jay Z's label Roc Nation. On the one hand, I was enthusiastic - if she was working with producers close to Jay Z, Pharrell was going to inevitably be involved and that's only a good thing. On the other hand, the other executive producer besides Minogue on this album is Sia, an artist who only seems to be getting more ephemeral and less tolerable the more she moves towards the mainstream - and Sia has more writing credits on this album than Minogue does. So with that in mind, is the album any good?

Eh, it's alright, I guess. It's by no means Kylie Minogue's worst album, but it's not her best either. If anything, this was the sort of album from Kylie Minogue I was dreading, because not only is not a adaption or even an appropriation of the better sounds and styles of the modern EDM scene by Kylie, but instead an attempt to crowbar Kylie into the modern sound - and thus you end up with an album that doesn't play to Kylie's strengths as a vocalist, which is a real shame.

So to start, let's talk about the lyrics. I have only one thing to say: while the lyrics are reasonably well-written, with the highlight being 'If Only' and the low points being either 'Sexercise' or 'Les Sex', they really don't matter. There has never really been depth in Kylie Minogue's lyrics at their best, and here, we get a collection of lyrics that would have common ground with songs on any other Kylie Minogue album. With only a few exceptions, they never reach the point of being annoying or obnoxious, but at the same time, they don't have a lot of flavour, and it's clear that if we were looking for a spot where there was the least effort, it would be here.

No, what gets a lot more interesting is the instrumentation and production. Now Kylie Minogue has a reputation for constantly evolving her sound to fit with the times, but at her best there was a loose, disco-inspired free-flowing energy that made her songs a lot of fun. And given modern trends in pop, I was anticipating some of that energy to crop up on this album... and it didn't really happen. Instead, a lot of the production seems inspired by the more opulent and grandiose touches that Jay Z's camp has favoured, along with heavier, fuzz-saturated electronica for the dance breakdowns. And while I don't think the blend of the classical instrumentation always works with the electronic elements, it sounds a lot more cohesive here and doesn't really suffer from bloat.

But here's the problem: Kylie's brand of breathy, high-pitched vocals aren't really the sort you would pair with this style of production - it's simply too heavy and booming and while she's never quite swallowed by the mix, it never supports her delivery. One of the reasons the flighty, high-energy sound of the late 90s worked so well for her is that it provided that gentle support for her vocals while still keeping the tightness and energy. Here, we get the energy and stiff production, but it only inconsistently supports her on songs like the funky 'Sexy Love' or the low-key 'Feels So Good'. In other cases, it feels too thudding and slow to compliment her well.

And yet that's not the worst problem with the production - no, that falls to the vocal effects placed on Kylie's voice and... Well, look, I'm not one to normally complain about autotune or vocoder effects. Sometimes they can be very powerful for influencing and enhancing a song's personality. But here, it does the exact opposite and leeches away a lot of Kylie's unique presence, which doesn't help her stand out behind the microphone. Honestly, there are points where a Britney Spears comparison wouldn't be far from the truth, and that's a damn shame for Kylie, who's always had the charisma and presence to make up for it. So a song like 'Beautiful', a regretful song between two former lovers and a duet with Enrique Iglesias, ends up losing a ton of vocal flavour because both are autotuned so heavily.

So in the end, there are some critics who are calling Kiss Me Once by Kylie Minogue her most anonymous album to date, and while I don't entirely agree - mostly because Kylie is still a solid pop presence - it doesn't nearly have the personality and flavour her older albums have had. If she was looking for songs that would fit the modern pop landscape... well, she got it, but it doesn't stand out or play to her strengths. And while there are a few songs I enjoyed on this album for pure pop appeal, there was very little on this record that stuck with me after multiple listens. So from me, it's a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore Kylie Minogue fan and you're looking for her newest sonic evolution. But even on that standard, I think she could have done a lot better.

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