Kylie Minogue’s first album in four years starts off with some electronically tweaked “oh, oh, ohs” that sound beamed in from a Jason DeRulo song. They send a clear message: Kiss Me Once is Minogue’s gung-ho attempt to once again join the mass American pop market, which has proven resistant to her music’s chrome-plated charms since “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” la-la-laed its way to the Top 10 back in 2001.
Elsewhere in the world, Minogue is a huge pop star — her last album, 2010′s Aphrodite, topped the UK albums chart and went Top 5 in other countries, but in the U.S. it only hit No. 19. Her tours are elaborately staged affairs; in 2011 I saw her play at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, and while that old room is a grand one she felt too big for it, entering the stage via seashell, chariot and bust of herself.
In early 2013 Minogue fired Terry Blamey, who had been her manager since the days when her cover of “The Loco-Motion” hit No. 3 in the States. His replacement: Roc Nation, the Jay-Z-founded entertainment company that counts Shakira, Rihanna and Grimes among its charges. Sia Furler, who has had a hand in Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You,” as well as Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts,” is the album’s executive producer alongside Minogue; songwriting and production assists come from Pharrell, Enrique Iglesias, Ariel Rechsthaid, MNDR and MNEK, among others. It’s a blend of the uber-mainstream and the Fader Fort cutting-edge that speaks the lingua franca of radio programmers, fashion editors and music bloggers.
But ultimately the guiding aesthetic belongs to Minogue, and as a result Kiss Me Once is less unpleasantly craven than, say, the Sugababes’ Sweet 7. (That 2010 album is the Goofus to Kiss Me Once‘s gallant; a naked crossover attempt that collapsed.) We’ll start with the lowlights, which unfortunately come earlier on the album: The opening track “Into the Blue” climbs out of the morass of its generic beginning, thanks in part to a bridge nicked from “Wrecking Ball,” although it’s not too far of a trip. “Sexercize,” one of two tracks co-written by Furler, has a dubstep grind and Minogue pleading for a “bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce”; it would have improved Britney Spears’s recent, listless Britney Jean, but it sounds like filler compared to better tracks like the Pharrell-produced “I Was Gonna Cancel,” a peppy track designed to accompany Saturday night eyelash-curling, or “Million Miles,” which is elevated by Minogue’s catchy enunciation of the chorus.
“Beautiful” is probably the most curious track; it’s a vocoder-drenched duet with Enrique Iglesias, whose position in the pop firmament seems to be near where Minogue is angling for with this album. The song is unapologetically romantic, with the singers trilling in unison about being “still the one” after “all this time”; its straight-up balladry feels out of place on this particular album, but it makes absolute sense from a commercial perspective. With the right positioning, it could be the track on Kiss Me Once with the longest legs — its slow build and plain affirmations of love make it perfect for a first dance at a wedding, or an anniversary party.
On Kiss Me Once‘s liveliest moments, it brings heady pop bliss. “Les Sex,” co-written by MNDR, is playfully grandiose, clearly ready to be a showstopper in Minogue’s live set. “Feels So Good” — a cover of “Indiana,” by the British singer-songwriter Tom Aspaul — strides in a way that recalls Madonna’s “True Blue,” and “If Only” broods on the verses before going big on the chorus. And then there’s the title track, the album’s high point; its verses build beautifully to the hesitantly triumphant chorus, on which the sort of bells that would normally accompany a Christmas ballad back Minogue’s declarations that “we’ve got some lovin’ to do.” It’s the sort of exquisite detail that distinguishes Minogue’s pop music, and it’s why she deserves to be noticed once again by the fickle American pop audience.