“Into the blue with nothing to lose,” sings Kylie Minogue on the lead single from Kiss Me Once, her 12th studio album. The song’s ode to adventure fits in perfectly with the developments in her career since previous album Aphrodite. There was, of course, K25 – her 2012 celebration of 25 years in pop which culminated in The Abbey Road Sessions’ orchestral reinventions of some of her most iconic hits and a mini-tour devoted to her rarities. It found Kylie not only at ease with her past but also, in a sense, demarcating it from her future.
This was underlined when, in 2013, she split with her manager Terry Blamey, who had guided her pop career from its inception and proceeded to sign to Jay-Z‘s Roc Nation. The only comparably dramatic changes in Kylie’s career to date were her label moves, which coincided with her most notable musical transformations. Her jump from PWL to Deconstruction ushered in the least commercially successful but arguably most interesting music of her career, while her move to Parlophone brought world-conquering sophisticated pop.
It could have been assumed, then, that Kiss Me Once would prove to be one of the most defining moments of Kylie’s career. Certainly as she’s approached the milestone age of 50 she’s spoken often of recording a jazz album, while the one previously-unrecorded song on The Abbey Road Sessions, Flower, was a deeply personal ode to an as-yet unborn child which was enormously atypical of her back catalogue. Given that the state of being an ageing pop star is still relatively unploughed terrain, with even behemoths like Madonna struggling to figure out their place in a world inherently dominated by youth, it would have made sense for Kylie to choose this moment for a radical reinvention.
It’s crushingly disappointing, then, to find that Kiss Me Once is perhaps her most anonymous offering to date. Kylie has always relied on a resolute blankness for much of her appeal and here, rather than exploding this open by injecting some strident character into proceedings, she sounds more removed from the material than she has since the grim dying days of her PWL era. The team of writers and producers (so large in number as to resemble the cast of Ben Hur) include names behind conveyer-belt hits from acts like The Wanted, Rita Ora, The Saturdays and Cher Lloyd, who could all be easily imagined singing many of the songs here.
Into The Blue’s lyrics may suggest age and experience, but they prove to be an aberration. As if to emphasise this, they are buried beneath a voice which is aggressively auto-tuned and a production which is certainly modern (and reminiscent of Taio Cruz) but too cold and functional. The song is sturdy where it should soar. The title track, a naggingly melancholic number which should be a Kylie classic, is similarly hampered by vocals which sound like they have been stripped of oxygen and vacuum-packed. This is taken to an extreme on the Enrique Iglesias duet Beautiful, where the surprisingly subtle ballad is smothered in vocoder to the point where it sounds like two androids asking for directions. Sexy Love, meanwhile, is an efficient stab at post-Get Lucky funk, yet Kylie feels so irrelevant to its appeal that it’s easy to forget she’s even there. This context means that when, towards the end of the staggeringly generic Million Miles, Kylie chants “I feel so invisible” it can’t help but seem like a cry for help.
Kylie’s passive presence on her own album is surprising to say the least, especially given her status as executive producer. Yet even the usually dependable Sia (co-executive producer) is off her game with the execrable Sexercise which, with its tuneless morass of production tricks, suggests that someone listened to the similarly dreadful Nu-Di-Ty from X and somehow thought that Kylie needed more of that kind of thing. The similarly ubiquitous Pharrell Williams fares better with I Was Gonna Cancel, the kind of effortlessly catchy dance floor filler he specialises in, though the bizarre borrowing of the hook from Beyoncé‘s Green Light only serves to remind that there are artists who are currently doing this much better.
Moments which feel truly inspired are few and far between. The relaxed lilt of Feels So Good is disarmingly charming while the ’90s house stylings of Fine (Kylie’s sole co-write) lend a surprising emotional pull to the ‘you’re gonna be fine’ hook. The stand-out track, however, is also the sole one which you can only really imagine Kylie singing: Les Sex is boldly camp, enormously silly and the most enjoyable thing here by a considerable distance.
Rather than mapping out Kylie’s future, then, Kiss Me Once finds her as trapped as she seemed before she left PWL. The album is as dependent on Kylie as a brand as her bedding range and just as inessential. It’s telling that serious critical appraisal of Kylie is rare, with the affection towards her most commonly being rooted in the notion that she’s a bit of fun who’s not to be taken too seriously. Yet it’s undeniable that she has produced some of the greatest pop songs of all time and, as she demonstrated during the Deconstruction years, she can be a creative force to be reckoned with. Kylie shouldn’t be some undemanding name to drop when people want to show that they like pop as well as ‘serious music’ – she more than deserves to be taken seriously as an artist in her own right. She is far, far too good to be fronting songs which sound ‘current’ only in the sense that you can imagine them ending up on Rihanna‘s rejection pile. Something brave is surely required next: at this point Kylie really does have nothing to lose.