Sondre Lerche is a Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and film score composer from Norway. His album Patience is out now. You can follow him on Twitter here.
(photo credit: Marius Hauge)
I remember when I first got word that there existed a new Destiny’s Child song called “Bootylicious.” Like many others, I assumed it was a joke. But this was no laughing matter. The song was a joyous feast, and put all our worst prejudices to shame. I bring this up only because there’s a song on Kylie Minogue’s new album called “Sexercize.” Now, if you’re really going to name your song “Sexercise,” you have to be absolutely sure you can back it up. But I’m not sure Kylie takes this as seriously as I do. This is one of her many strengths as a pop artist.
Since the late ’80s, Kylie been the most disarmingly likable of pop stars. Like Madonna, she built her empire more despite, than because of, her singing ability. Her vocal range and tone is quite limited, and she’s no belter, like a lot of singers in her field nowadays. But unlike Madonna, who often appears unbecomingly nervous and defensive when out of her depth vocally in performance — as if she’s spent years trying, and ultimately failing to conquer this final frontier — Kylie’s lack of range has never seemed to trouble her. She’s remained bubbly and fun where Madonna often has appeared stiff and cold, blinking uncontrollably when concentrating on proving her critics wrong.
Both as a pop singer and a fantasy, Kylie’s always been my favorite. For a 10 year old boy who watched MTV Europe, say, four or five hours every day in the early ’90s, Kylie effortlessly appeared cooler than her competition, even when, for a while, she wasn’t having proper hits. Several troubled alternative rockers of the time shared my projections, and embraced her effervescence. Nick Cave famously encouraged her to recite the lyrics for her harmless 1988 smash “I Should Be So Lucky” at a Royal Albert Hall performance in the mid ’90s, offering her confidence and recontextualising her at a time when her streak of Stock, Aitken & Waterman-produced hits had long since ended and she, like Miley Cyrus in 2013, or Britney in 2001, was looking for ways to counter her good-girl image. She returned Cave the favor, duetting with him on his only proper hit-song (in Europe), “Where the Wild Roses Grow.”
Kylie soldiered on, pursuing collaborations with Manic Street Preachers and other semi-alternative forces, for what would end up as her biggest commercial flop, 1997’s Impossible Princess. It is, of course, my favorite Kylie album: an eclectic, seductive mix of electronic mantras and a couple of catchy, carefree, guitar-based pop songs. State-of-the-art pop stars were not yet allowed to flirt with indie-rock elements, and as such, one might argue that Kylie Minogue was a pioneer, 10 years ahead of the faux-indie-rock crunch of Kelly Clarkson’s still-dreadful “Since U Been Gone.”
Without much purpose as a pop artist to anybody but me, lest she was, in fact, actually popular, Kylie got her act straight and entered the new millennium with the fun disco smash “Spinning Around,” and, eventually, her biggest global hit to date, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
More than ten years later, Kiss Me Once finds her still trying to maintain her momentum and move with the times, while still being Kylie. Best then, to start off the album with a couple of inspirational songs, before we get busy. I suppose it’s customary that any contemporary pop album nowadays come with at least one of these, and while Kylie’s words of independence and defiance ring true — she’s had hits in four different decades and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 — it still doesn’t quite seem like the best use of her considerable charms. Opener “Into the Blue” ends somewhat sloppily, revealing ungraceful synth pads that easily could have been faded out more efficiently. Little details like this give the impression that time is of the essence in the business of Kylie.
Thankfully, things are looking up by track three. “I Was Gonna Cancel” gets straight to the point, opening with the title phrase over an instantly infectious beat. Kylie sings so beautifully deadpan and without affectation that it’s like 15 years of young white over-emoting pop and “rock” singers gargling their vowels never happened. On songs as dry and fun as this one, Kylie feels like a disco Peggy Lee. It’s wonderful.
Three songs on the album have the word “sex” in the title. “Sexy Love” is by far the sexiest of the bunch. Which is to say, it’s cute and fun, but would’ve benefited from a sharper hook — or two — which is the tendency on the album overall. I’m assuming all the songwriters and producers involved in making this record are incredibly expensive — I can only imagine — and as such, Kylie, CEO, should not be entirely satisfied with their performance.
This is never more apparent than on the aforementioned “Sexercize.” It’s not impossible that a song called “Sexercize” could be good, but the odds sure are stacked against it. Sadly, the song feels more like a particularly exhausting spinning class, than a mindblowing sexual encounter with the object of your desire. “Tomorrow you’ll be sore, let me see you sexercize”, she both warns and demands, but I get the feeling neither one of us is in the mood right now, and that’s such a missed opportunity. At least for me.
“If Only” feels considerably more confident and ambitious. It contains some very interesting vocalizing and vocal effects that call to mind Kate Bush. The whole thing feels inspired, where some of the more overt chart-advances and sexed-up songs on the album feel stale and by the numbers.
The title track, ironically, finds Kylie channeling Madonna’s nasal tone. Even the beats remind me of “Express Yourself,” or is it “Vogue”? Either way, the song also contains a very characteristic chordal movement that keeps reminding me of Alicia Keys’ superb “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart.” I quite like Kylie’s song, but I unfairly keep wishing it came charged with the same degree of motivation and purpose that Keys’ tune projects.
The two final tracks both employ a chordal vocoder effect, quite similar to the sound highlighted on Imogen Heap’s wonderful 2005 single “Hide and Seek.” Kylie’s use of this effect provides both songs with a welcome sonic identity, but, again one wishes that the actual songs Kylie were singing were as good as the ones they remind you of.
The jealous lover in me also wishes Kylie hadn’t brought that idiot Enrique Iglesias to her party for the obligatory duet, “Beautiful.” Her 2000 duet with Robbie Williams, “Kids,” is much more spirited. (As for my own lifelong hopes of one day getting her to duet with me, this review may not be the best idea.) While I realize it might seem like wishful thinking, it does provide me some comfort to find Kylie, awash in vocal effects, pretty much drowned out Enrique’s yelpy-ass voice by the end of the song.
And just like that, unceremoniously, as we’ve come to expect from old-fashioned albums by pop artists who are known more for great singles (Kylie’s had 33 UK Top 10 hits), this one is over.
Nothing here challenges 1994’s “Confide in Me,” the masterpiece where all of Kylie’s star qualities align — populist, artistic, sexy, sweet, daring, cool — but Kylie continues to spread cheer for all to hear, and for that she deserves both better material and a delicious, huge hit song in every decade for as long as she shall sing.