Aging gracefully is hard work, especially for international mega pop stars. Just because Madonna makes it look easy does not make it so. The tension between artistic choices that flatter a star's abilities and history and ones that help them remain creatively vital and contemporary is pronounced. Kylie Minogue has historically performed better on this score than most—taking time off in the '90s to do some legitimately strange, commercially unfriendly yet fantastic work before returning to form and breaking America with shiny robotic disco was commendable—but her 10th album represents a bit of a misstep. Of course, since the dame turns 40 this year and was just awarded an O.B.E., and since this record is her first since a scary and public battle with breast cancer, audiences should probably cut her some slack. And provided you're capable of looking past the fact that some of the new crazy sounds of today look about as good on her as a gold lame tube top looks on your grandma, this record is plenty likeable.
One of the most contemporary (and least pleasant) aspects of X is its scattershot production, which gives it the focus-grouped attention deficit disorder more typical of a Gwen Stefani record than one of Minogue's laser-honed disco-princess home runs. The first half, in particular, zings around the modern poposphere with the sticky beak of a hopped-up magpie. "2 Hearts," an entirely serviceable rip of Goldfrapp's glammier slinks, kicks things off well. Kylie hasn't spent much time in this sandbox, but she sounds great at this pace (and even better on Studio's threatening Balearic rerub). Hopefully it's a mode she'll return to, because she completely abandons it here in favor of hopscotching through a couple of widely divergent takes on electropop: the high-gloss "Like a Drug" and the filmsy, nearly-punk Calvin Harris production "In My Arms," which is essentially what a neon-orange feather boa would sound like if it were a song.
Unfortunately, we then arrive at the first of two phenomenally annoying Bloodshy & Avant productions. It's hard to understand how it might be possible to (essentially simultaneously) make Britney Spears sound like a consummate professional and make Kylie sound like a rank amateur, but the Swedish phenoms pull it off twice here. "Speakerphone" is particularly egregious, at least partially because its drum sounds subtly announce this record's intention to flirt with hip-hop in a way that is wholly inappropriate for Minogue, and also because it drowns her voice in floods of vocoder. The impulse to follow in the footsteps of white hip-popsters like Stefani and Nelly Furtado—on whose records songs like "Nu-Di-Ty" and "Heart Beat Rock" might make sense—is frankly rather disastrous for her.
Luckily, the record's second half is mostly a return to form. If '80s-evoking disco-rockers like "The One" and "Stars" don't break a lot of new ground for Minogue, at least she sounds comfortable on them. The latter, complete with tastefully arranged guitar wails, achieves a sort of cheesy majesty that hearkens back to the uncommonly strong album cuts on Fever. "All I See" has a beat that gestures toward the street, but its emphasis on a strutting bassline and a confidently strummed harp allows it to land on the satisfying side of Janet Jackson's "Together Again," which sounded like house anyway.
"Wow" is a pretty great summation of the commercially successful aspects of Minogue's career to date—a hyperactive juvenile disco track full of fun, big-budget whooshes and drops, something utterly disposable that she sells without shame. It's also the highlight of the record, which is fitting since it has more DNA in common with "The Loco-Motion" than humans do with chimpanzees. When the aforementioned "Nu-Di-Ty" clocks in, the sub-Timbaland electro-hopper feels like the bitter aftermath of a sugar rush, especially since Minogue gives it all the conviction of a clipped-on navel ring. Hopefully, next time she'll try a new direction that's actually new—or at least bring more feather boas.