The Australian pop icon has made several decades’ worth of great disco—yet her new album is a polyester-thin fabrication that sounds as if she’d only just heard of it recently.
Among the many perversities of 2020 is how much disco there’s been for a year without discotheques. From Róisín Murphy to Jessie Ware to Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, musicians collectively longed for the unattainable dancefloor. Most of it is quite good, and none of it needs to advertise itself, with pay-attention ALL-CAPS, as DISCO. The idea of Kylie Minogue “going disco” is more than a little redundant: She’s made several decades’ worth of the stuff, including several modern classics. She has recorded (excellent) tracks called “Disco Down” and “Your Disco Needs You.” Kylie claimed in a recent interview that she never envisioned the album as “a concept”—dubious, since her next words were about how she imagined the title as DISCO from the start. But she built a home studio, immersed herself in deep cuts, leveled up her production skills, and engineered for the first time, all to prevent the album from becoming “a tribute record.”
Whatever the album was that she conceived, the album she recorded is just that: a polyester-thin fabrication that sounds as if she just learned of disco’s existence during quarantine. While making the album, she redirected her producers to Earth, Wind & Fire YouTubes whenever the record started sounding like “electro-pop”—i.e., like herself. The lyrics drop names like Wikipedia: Studio 54, “I Will Survive,” the Electric Slide. Kylie works against her voice, trying to studio-contort her vocal into a dancing-queen diva or multitrack herself into a gospel chorus. If Golden sounded like Kylie LARPing country music, DISCO frequently sounds like Kylie LARPing dance—which shouldn’t happen. No one better expresses the record’s essential uncoolness than Kylie herself: “Gramps is on the dance floor. It makes me picture David Brent busting out his dad moves.”
Uncool is not bad, and if anything, DISCO could stand more of it: to evoke actual disco in all its frisson and desperation, rather than the remembered-40-years-later version, full of kitsch and clip-art disco balls. The album, with a couple exceptions, has two modes: overly tasteful cruise-ship programming, and gauche rehashes. Kylie front-loads the weakest material—maybe passable in a set, but fatal in an album, where there’s no club to leave. “Magic” has a fizzy, sparky chorus, the sinuous melody of “Miss a Thing” has a little “Confide in Me” to it, and “Real Groove” pulls Kylie’s voice into rubber and sends it ricocheting, but none of the tracks go anywhere, and lose their energy less than halfway. “Monday Blues” doesn’t bring up energy so much as yank it back, coating its spangles in flop sweat. A “Celebration” remake that’s lawsuit-level blatant, it’s so studied it forgets to celebrate.
Not everything is so doomed by comparison. “Last Chance” is also an obvious homage, this time to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” but the scenario comes with its own urgency, and while Kylie isn’t quite transcendent, she fills the role well. The album’s requisite appeal-to-deejay song, “Where Does the DJ Go?” is ridiculous (where does the DJ go after last call? Home, usually), but it’s an authentic kind of ridiculous, akin to the urgent, emotionally frantic, and absolutely real crises of raining men or blowing up a building with boogie. The overclocked “Voulez-Vous” arrangement helps; it’s brittle and a little too fast, sounding like stretching the night past its limits. On “Supernova,” Kylie’s voice has more bite and life than all the above tracks combined, even before the ecstatic soprano swoops toward the end. (It’s one of the few places on the album she works with her voice, not against it.) The metallic robo-chassis vocal effects, the intergalactic metaphor collision, and the desperate, high-key lust memorably evoke ’70s space disco novelties like “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper.”
The next track, “Say Something,” is the strongest and also the least disco. The track loses its sequencer a third of the way in, and when it comes back it’s left quiet. There’s no real chorus and almost no structure at all. What’s left is a luxuriant amount of space for Kylie to spiral higher, buoyed by rocket-exhaust sighs and airy choirs and zero-irony affirmations: “Love is love,” “Can we all be as one again?” Finishing the track reportedly brought Kylie and longtime cowriter Biff Stannard to tears; they knew they were onto something. Perhaps they got caught up in the moment. Perhaps the lyrics hit a bit different in spring 2020 than fall 2019; Kylie’s said as much. Perhaps they heard the sparkling moment where Kylie stopped being DISCO and resumed being Kylie.
Buy: Rough Trade