Kylie Minogue has been beating the disco drum in one form or another for the better part of three decades now, so it’s no surprise that the pop singer would feel inclined to try something new. Born and raised in Australia’s second-most populous city, Minogue doesn’t exactly have deeps roots in the Outback, but her transition from dancing queen to bush balladeer on the Nashville-influenced Golden isn’t without precedent: Fellow Aussie Olivia Newton-John famously made a similar, albeit reverse, move in the 1980s, and Minogue’s 2012 album The Abbey Road Sessions proved she’s capable of holding her own in a stripped-down, acoustic setting.
Still, it’s surprising just how comfortably Minogue slips into country music here, the cadence in her voice at times vaguely reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s, particularly on songs that fully commit to the aesthetic tenets of the genre, like the anthemic “A Lifetime to Repair.” From the wistful, lilting melody of “Love” to the effortlessly tossed-off quality of the verses on “Raining Glitter,” Minogue sounds more relaxed than she has in years. Her gauzy backing vocals float like gossamer in and out of the mix on “Music’s Too Sad Without You”—which is, admittedly, more Lana Del Rey than Keith Urban.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that Minogue’s voice sounds tinny and over-compressed on at least half the album, most notably on tracks produced by African-German knob-twirler Sky Adams. Lead single “Dancing,” helmed by Adams, feels half-formed, partly because the fleeting, three-minute song lacks a proper bridge, and partly because of how flatly it’s mixed. Which is a shame, since “Dancing” is blissfully macabre, its subtle central double entendre—“When I go out, I wanna go out dancing”—a reflection of Minogue’s resolve to face her inevitable death with good humor and style.
Golden, whose title commemorates Minogue’s impending 50th birthday, is the singer’s most personal album since 1997’s Impossible Princess. Both her anxiety about and joyful resistance to her mortality is apparent in songs like “Live a Little” and “Golden.” “Sincerely Yours” is a “love letter” most likely directed at tour audiences—“This is not the end, I’ll come back again/You’ll still see me, you’ll still hear me”—but it’s hard not to imagine Minogue singing it as penance to fans eagerly awaiting her return to dance music.
While country signifiers abound, from foot-stomping to fiddling, the songs on Golden also smartly juxtapose contemporary pop elements like soaring synth hooks and pitched-up vocals. Minogue’s vocables on “Live a Little” even cleverly mimic a slide guitar, while her yodeling on the title track nods to Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If nothing else, Golden further bolsters Minogue’s reputation for taking risks—and artfully sets the stage for her inevitable disco comeback.