Within the past year, Nashville seems to have put out a bat-signal for popstars of the ‘00s. Country-pop has come a-calling for them all: it made Justin Timberlake embrace the Donald-Trump-Jr-outdoors aesthetic for ‘Man of the Woods’; it made Gwen Stefani tap up her boyfriend Blake Shelton for her festive shindig ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’; and, following her fascinating Flaming Lips psych-pop trip ‘…& Her Dead Petz’, it even made Miley Cyrus scurry back to her family’s roots with 2017’s ‘Younger Now’. Before you know it, Britney and Xtina will be donning rhinestone boots and duetting about the joys of southern grits – but first, enter international treasure Kylie Minogue with her 14th album, ‘Golden’.
It’s unfortunate for this rootin’-tootin’ pop confection to arrive just one week after the understated country-pop magnificence of Kacey Musgraves’ similarly titled ‘Golden Hour’. On her third album, that Texan singer demonstrated not only her playfulness, but also an awe-inspiring fluency with her genre; by contrast, ‘Golden’ tends to beat listeners over the head with the ABCs of country. Stomps and handclaps and finger-picked guitar are heavy in the electro mix, and on the title track, the melody of a Spaghetti Western whistle is even woven into the vocals, plus – for some reason – castanets. Listening is generally fun, but not particularly difficult: at its most contrived, this album almost sounds focus-grouped for the malls and airports of Trump’s America.
‘Golden”s highlights invariably come when country serves as a delicate seasoning for Kylie’s pop chops. Lead single ‘Dancing’ does exactly what it says on the tin, while ‘Raining Glitter’, the album’s soaring highlight, is a total joy – and a reminder of Kylie’s enormous likeability. This electro-country hoedown oozes fun and is awash with gorgeous details – especially in a post-chorus fill, where a goofy, trilling synth gives way to a muted “Whoop”, as though Kylie is tugging the reins on a skittish steed. Everything about it works; if only every song on the album sounded like this.
The majority of the record does not – and often it strays perilously close to pastiche. ‘Stop Me From Falling’ bristles with good-time handclaps and a goshdarn toe-tappin’ basslines. ‘A Lifetime To Repair’ features violin and banjo lines that wouldn’t feel out of place in ‘Cotton Eye Joe’. ‘Shelby ‘68’, meanwhile, finds Kylie adopting an ill-fitting Tennessee twang to tell a lovestruck road-trip story that begins with a spoonfeeding engine noise and which scans like a cynically countrified version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’. As a pop product, the album performs its function – and it’s commendable of Minogue to experiment with a different sound. It’s just a shame to hear a pop queen like Kylie seeming to buy into tacky generic artifice because it happens to be in vogue.
That said, more often than not there’s real heart here, and it’s often in the quieter moments that the music really shines. ‘Radio On’, a wounded ballad, finds a winner in pastoral post-breakup imagery as Kylie finds sweet solace in music: “It rolls like thunder, and it hits like lightning,” she sings. “When you’re going under, it lifts you up again.” The shuffling piano-led closer, Jack Savoretti collab ‘Music’s Too Sad Without You’, is like some gorgeous offcut from Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’. Slowbanger ‘Sincerely Yours’, meanwhile, she calls “a love letter” to her fans. “My audience have been with me on the journey,” Kylie says, “so I shouldn’t be afraid that they won’t come with me on this part. I’ve had fun with it, and I’m sure they will too.” It’s a bumpy ride, but undoubtedly they will.