Album Review: Kylie Minogue – DISCO

[BMG; 2020]

It’s been two decades now since Kylie Minogue re-situated herself at the top of the pop tree with the release of 2000’s Light Years. That record propelled her back to the upper echelons of the charts and led to everything else we have come to cherish about Kylie – the sleek modern pop classic that is 2001’s Fever, the hypnotic career high watermark of “Slow”, her triumphant and poignant Glastonbury headline slot in 2019. Kylie, who managed to marry the pure, uncomplicated pop bliss of her early years with the experimentation that brought acclaim on records like 1997’s Impossible Princess, graduated seamlessly to ‘(inter)national treasure’ status.

But over the past decade, there’s little denying that her studio output has been somewhat uneven. 2014’s Kiss Me Once was a mixed bag of pop jewels and underwhelming throwaways, and while 2018’s Golden was a welcome change of pace, with its country-pop tinge and large substitution of synths for guitars, it’s been a while since Kylie has struck glitterball gold on a new LP. Disco, with an album cover beamed in straight from 1979, finds Kylie ostensibly going back to what she does best, or at least what the public at large seem to want most from her – insistent rhythms, simple pop hooks, euphoric anthems. But does it deliver beyond its glitzy surface?

The answer, as has often been the case with Kylie’s most recent records, is ‘partly’. Everything about Disco is planned, managed, co-ordinated into being – from the title itself, to the artwork, to the reference points in the music and lyrics. It’s as if someone on the A&R team had a clipboard with a Disco Check List to certify that this, truly, can pass as a ‘Disco Album’ – and Kylie diligently completes the risk assessment. There’s a reference to Studio 54 in the lyric to one song, and most of the material is built on the same core elements of Nile Rodgers-style guitar licks, rubbery funk basslines, and liberal use of cowbell and handclaps. Staccato strings are duly selected for some of the more emotive numbers, and Daft Punk-aping vocoders are applied to inject arrangements with some galactic disco glitter. It’s rare, though, that the songs stray far from this template into something anything particularly inventive or genuinely dynamic.

“I feel like anything could happen,” sings Kylie on the opener “Magic”, but little especially remarkable pours forth over the course of 40 minutes. “Magic” is a solid opener, with its disco-fied, syncopated piano rhythm and its camp tapestry of synths and handclaps, but it sets the template for the album’s production – somewhat over-compressed, with Kylie’s vocals often sounding tinny and a little synthetic.

The album takes a turn for the dreamier on “Miss a Thing”, with its Chic-inspired bassline and beat, and a more sophisticated arrangement with disco strings cloaking it like a glossy curtain, exemplifying the ‘lost on the dancefloor’ mode that most of us have been missing in 2020. The funky feel continues more explicitly on “Real Groove”, with its vocoders and slinky rhythm.

“Monday Blues”, however, is a grating, frothy throwaway, relentlessly up-tempo with its processed guitars and a frantic rhythm, as Kylie shrieks over funky guitar licks, “get me to the weekend! Get me to the weekend!” If “Magic”, “Miss a Thing”, and “Real Groove” got you up on the floor, “Monday Blues” is your ‘I’m going to the bar’ interlude.

The album’s mid-section is certainly its strongest. “Supernova” is brilliant, a fabulous concoction of electric piano, throbbing bassline, strings, and better vocal production that enhances rather than detracts from the rest of the song. It has a darker, nocturnal quality, and Kylie’s vocal is appropriately more aggressive and dynamic. “All I need is just a little bit of your starlight,” she sings, and she sounds like she really means it.

“Can we all be as one again?” asks Kylie plaintively, and with consummate summer-in-lockdown timing, on “Say Something”. It’s simple but lovely, with a nostalgic, joyful euphoria about it; the melody is familiar but it’s a solid Kylie lead single, with a building arrangement of synths and vocals and some well-chosen early 80s Bowie guitar licks.

“Last Chance” again explores the Chic-at-Studio 54 hybrid feel, but this time also sets its strobe light straight for disco-era ABBA; “Voulez-Vous” appears to be the structural and melodic reference point for the song, and while it doesn’t scale the dramatic, inventive apex of the Swedes’ peak, it passes muster as a fair disco experiment. “The DJ gonna play my song / the one that turns me on,” she sings, and all one can do is hope that she hasn’t requested “Monday Blues”.

From there at track seven, Disco loses a bit of steam. Teaser single “I Love It” is a little bland, the musical equivalent of the moment you realise you’ve had a few too many WKDs and have to sit the next song out or else risk the indignity of a lone taxi home when the night’s still young. “Where Does the DJ Go” gets you back on your feet, but ultimately it can be filed along with “Monday Blues” as frivolous light relief. It manages to secrete an “I Will Survive” reference about its undoubtedly gold-lamé-cladded person before gambolling off the dancefloor like “Your Disco Needs You”‘s irritating, hyperactive cousin.

“Dance Floor Darling” is a late-album highlight, a mostly mid-tempo spangly phoenix risen from the glitterball ashes of “Magic” and “Say Something”. It also manages to tick off a couple more items from the Disco Check List – a Studio 54 reference, 80s guitar squalls, and a spoken segment, no less.

“Unstoppable” benefits from a more spacious production and stripped-back arrangement but a forgettable non-melody; standard edition closer “Celebrate You”, sung to an imaginary and inexplicable Mary, is better, a last-orders call-to-arms at the end of the night, if a little saccharine. “Everything I like about myself is better with you,” she sings, with a classic, warmly nostalgic melody that isn’t a million miles away from Kylie’s late 80s output.

Disco is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not an album to expect particular lyrical insights from, and indeed delivers such banal platitudes as “dancing – nothing could be better / make the night last forever” and “let the music play / we’re gonna take it all the way.” But basic lyrics can be forgiven if everything else is firing on all cylinders, and too much of Disco feels like a missed opportunity to go a little further, a little deeper, a little more outlandish – Kylie’s Disco Check List is the Check List of someone who could do with being taken to a different club.

There seems an unspoken sentiment that it’s unfair to compare Disco to the sleek, sophisticated, dance-based efforts turned in by Jessie Ware or Róisín Murphy this year, perhaps because Kylie is more at the pure pop end of the spectrum. But for an artist who has proven to be capable of making truly high-quality pop records that are smart, dynamic, imaginative, there can’t help but be a disappointing aftertaste to some of Disco. A bit like your WKDs that had to make you take a seat earlier.

What it does do is provide some light, fresh relief in a dark year, a little shot of rescue remedy as we prepare for a lockdown winter. It has all the superficial trademarks of Kylie’s work – dancefloor euphoria, knowing pop references – but without many of the richer details that make them more enduring. Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, for instance, possibly mainstream pop’s high watermark in the category of genre-specific disco album, was packed to the brim with hook after hook, ingenious twist after surprising left-turn – all the while keeping to its Disco with a capital D brief – in a way Disco isn’t.

For this moment in time, though, Disco does just fine. Who doesn’t want to see Kylie back on the dancefloor after the year we’ve had? Repeated listens, indeed, prove it to be a perfectly serviceable, enjoyable offering. But there’s always that nagging feeling, once the DJ has packed up the gear and the dancefloor empties, that there could have been something more.