Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess bears a striking resemblance to Ray of Light, that other worldwide pop queen’s landmark album. Both are deeply personal efforts. Both feature tons of guitars. And both were considered risky efforts by firmly established artists to update their respective pop sound.
Madonna’s excursion into electronica may have saved her from imminent irrelevance. In Kylie’s case, however, Impossible Princess garnered harsh reviews and barely made a blip on the European radar—strange for an artist whose every style-change and lip-lock is reported feverishly in the U.K. tabloids. But trying to hypothesize why the album didn’t resonate with critics, or the public—her fans either love it or hate it, and are passionate about their opinions either way—is a moot point. What’s important is the music, and Impossible Princess is still Minogue’s best album to date.
Inspired by both the Brit-pop and electronica movements of the mid-’90s, Minogue enlisted Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers and techno gurus Brothers in Rhythm to helm the project, but the singer had a hand in writing every song, giving the album a starkly personal and unified cord. From the get-go it’s clear this isn’t the same girl who sang “The Loco-Motion.” The opening track, “Too Far,” mixes crisp breakbeats with a Moby-style piano progression and lush strings, while the very next track, “Cowboy Style,” features a tribal percussion break and a string quartet that sounds more Celtic than country.
Like Madonna, Minogue acknowledges the limitations of her vocal range by never venturing outside of her comfort zone. But Impossible Princess finds her stretching herself way beyond anything she’d done before—or anything she’s done since. The album isn’t a spiritual revelation in the vein of Ray of Light—this is the voice of hurt and searching. “I ache for great experience…I’m not happy/Waste till I’m wasted,” Minogue sings on “Drunk,” one of many anthemic trance tracks littered throughout the album.
Impossible Princess runs the gamut of styles but manages to remain cohesive and fresh, even years later. The sleek trip-hop of “Jump” and the deliriously spacey “Say Hey” fit like puzzle pieces next to the Chemical Brothers-style techno/rock hybrid “Limbo” and the frenetic “I Don’t Need Anyone.” Minogue fiercely declares her independence but admits to her innate vulnerability: “I don’t need anyone/Except for someone I’ve not found.”
Co-produced by former Soft Cell synth-master Dave Ball, the standout “Through the Years” evokes Björk’s “Venus As a Boy” but creates its own smoky atmosphere with muted horns, experimental vocal tracks and elegiac lyrics. “Too many a twisted word was said/My body was porous/I savored every drop of you,” Minogue coos.
Maybe Minogue overestimated both her audience and her critics. Like the impossible princess of “Dreams,” the album’s cinematic final track, perhaps she simply wanted it all: creative freedom and her throne. But Impossible Princess is the work of an artist willing to take risks, not a pop queen concerned with preserving her reign.