March 20, 2014

Test Spin: Kylie Minogue, Kiss Me Once

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On a sunny afternoon, two men and a small woman walked into the studios of the Tribeca radio station where I was interning. Upon arriving, the Program Director walked out of his office and warmly greeted the guests, none of whom I could recognize. “Who is that out there?” I asked the DJ whom I was helping out. She looked out our studio window and into the hallway where the four were chatting. “Don’t know,” she responded. “I’ll go ask.” She left our booth and walked to the office next door, and returned a minute later. Putting her headphones back on, she answered calmly and professionally, “That’s Kylie Minogue.”

And then I panicked. At that point working at the station, I had seen celebrities like Flo Rida, and even Justin Bieber walk through those doors and I managed to maintain my composure and keep my nervousness to myself. And yet when this Australian pop artist waltzed in, I was positively star struck; I started beaming and giggling, asking if I should go over and introduce myself like I needed a prom date by the end of the week. As I did this, the DJ looked confused. I don’t have the appearance of someone who would lose my ability to form sentences for one of the poppiest of pop artists. I look like someone who would pepper phrases like “Samurai Metal” into daily conversation, so perhaps she thought I had misheard her and thought the bassist for some obscure grindcore band had entered our midst.

But no, in my opinion, Kylie Minogue is one of if not the best artist making pop music today. There’s something so infectious and unpretentious about her music that would get me genuinely excited if I heard it on the radio. I got hooked on her music with 2010’s Aphrodite, an album that peaked with the shoulda-been-massive hit single “Get Outta My Way,” but also brimmed with independence and creativity that I find so rare in music of similar sound. Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s follow-up to Aphrodite, is not quite as consistent as its predecessor, but it’s better than most, and has the potential to please many ears, not necessarily just ones in Australia.

While Aphrodite was a full-cylinder assault of bangers that could appeal directly to the unconverted, Kiss Me Once requires you to analyze it on its own terms in order to fully appreciate it. You’re going to get some artificial-sounding production, Kylie’s voice will sound uncomfortably warped at times. Whereas Aphrodite was produced almost exclusively by British pop music vet Stuart Price, Kiss Me Once features a grab bag of collaborators and sounds like it. It reaches the unapologetic highs of Minogue’s best work but also succumbs to the tropes that can come with inviting corporate bit players looking to make a buck.

To start, Kiss Me Once’s best songs are the sex ones: “Sexy Love”, “Les Sex” and “Sexercise.” As those titles suggest, things get campy and there are very few Minogues better than campy Minogue. “Sexercise” starts on rough footing with the gurgle of dubstep bass, but Minogue redeems it by doubling down on the raunch, inviting you with come ons like “feel the burn” and “bounce, bounce” that later turn into all-out scat-rapping that you wouldn’t find succeeding anywhere this side of Rihanna’s Apologetic. “Sexy Love” and “Les Sex” utilize the Frankenstein vogue-funk that made “Sexxx Dreams” the only worthwhile song on Lady Gaga’s Artpop. While the critic part of me wants to wring prescience out of lines like “Take two of these and meet me in the shadows,” or “Let’s make out on the low,” the bottom line here is that these songs are fun as hell. And you don’t have to couch your enjoyment in condescension to wild out like you would with Ke$ha or Miley. Minogue knows what she’s doing, and you can just enjoy the ride.

Despite these great tracks, Kiss Me Once made me apprehensive the first time I listened to it, because it’s bookended by some bland tunes. “Beautiful,” the album’s only ballad, wisely chooses to obscure guest vocalist Enrique Iglesias’ performance with a robotic harmony on the chorus, but even the suggestion of his oversinging is rough to sit through. “Fine” and “Into the Blue” prove that Minogue can sound charismatic over just about any generic dance beat, but when “Million Miles” leads directly into the snare snaps of “I Was Gonna Cancel,” the album’s tone switches like night and day. Produced by Pharrell (Who’s been involved with so much pop music this past year he should be investigated for payola), the song grooves on synth bass, chimes and a subtle operatic vocal line, marrying old and new production styles in a way that might as well be called ‘rell-core at this point. Minogue sings of pumping herself up before heading out on a date, and playfully describes her morning ritual by punctuating each step with a “hey” and “mhm.” She even says, “You go girl!” at one point and it sounds almost novel. If you were to throw that phrase into any old tune, it might as well be one as buoyant as this one.

Though I wish the album had explored that direction more, Kiss Me Once is yet another example of why Minogue is in an alt-pop master class and why you need to start listening to her if you even consider yourself a novice in pop music. However, if feeling happy and uninhibited is not your bag, I’d suggest Aphrodite first then moving on from there. The highlights of Kiss Me Once deserve a place in any club in the country, but it’s not as consistent if you play it front to back. Regardless, if Kylie had released Kiss Me Once instead of Aphrodite by the time she had walked into that radio station in 2012, I probably would have clammed up just as much. I find you’re always most apprehensive to approach the artists you respect the most.