Kylie Minogue had already gone through multiple transformations before the release of her 2018 album Golden, but hearing the pop stalwart lean into her country influences was still a surprise to many. An admirable if half-hearted experiment, the album arrived at a time when country was having sort of a resurgence in popular culture – it was that year that Justin Timberlake unleashed his own foray into the genre, Man of the Woods, to mixed reception. (Though by no means as bad as that album, Golden was still only half as good as a certain Grammy-winning country-pop album that shares half its name and was released just weeks earlier.) The unambiguously titled DISCO sees the singer retreating back into her comfort zone, eschewing the personal songwriting of her previous LP to deliver her most consistently enjoyable crop of songs in years.
With disco-inspired albums like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia finding widespread success in the mainstream, DISCO could be seen as less of an exercise in nostalgia than another attempt to cash into current trends in pop music, only this time that trend happens to be much closer to Kylie’s natural wheelhouse. But unlike Golden, her new album feels less like a cultural product than a sincere effort to embrace the pure escapism inherent in the genre’s stylings at a time where hitting the dancefloor still seems like a distant reality. Like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, it’s the kind of record whose artistic quality is much less important than its function in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – and as it glides through shimmering synths and soppy disco strings, DISCO certainly does enough to turn your kitchen into a disco for just short of an hour.
As much as the record is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, Minogue has also refuted the idea that it’s an “album of throwaway subject matter,” adding that, “even if it feels like [singing] about the dance floor, it still has its place.” The best songs on DISCO prove that simply by carrying an irresistible charm – current single ‘Magic’ is hands down one of the most infectious tunes in the singer’s catalogue, opening the record with the kind of wild-eyed optimism that urges you to believe in a premise (“Dancing together”) that currently feels more like a dream. “The time is disappearin’/ This moment’s never leavin’,” she sings, and the rest of the album sets out to make that a reality by repeating that familiar formula, though it’s not always as successful: follow-up ‘Miss a Thing’, for instance, attempts to cast that same spell, but the result is less entrancing. Thankfully, the album still has plenty more highlights to offer: ‘Real Groove’ is smooth and slinky, while ‘Monday Blues’ boasts one of the album’s most kinetic grooves as it kicks up the BPM. Strangely enough, it’s often the tracks that take the concept of disco revivalism a little too far that end up sticking the landing: take ‘Where Does the DJ Go?’, with its cheesy retro vibes, or ‘Say Something’, with its soaring, schmaltzy chorus: “Love is love, it never ends/ Can we all be as one again?”
That sort of youthful naivety inevitably stands out in an album billed as “disco for grown-ups”, but it’s not long before the approach starts to wear thin. Lack of depth is to be expected on a record like this, but if Jessie Ware’s excellent new album What’s Your Pleasure? proved anything, it’s that you can remain strapped to a bygone era without veering into pastiche (just compare ‘Spotlight’, the final track on the deluxe edition of DISCO, with the single of the same name that opens Ware’s album). While it’s refreshing to hear a Kylie Minogue album that’s fairly consistent – in sound if not always in quality – it’s also a shame that we don’t get to see her expand her songwriting skills as she did on Golden; that personal angle probably wouldn’t work here, but the album’s populist bent nevertheless has more impact when it’s tied to some semblance of narrative or a stronger emotional core. On the stirring mid-tempo closer ‘Celebrate You’, Minogue focuses on a single character but addresses anyone who feels hopeless or insignificant; it’s the one moment on the album that feels like it celebrates humanity more than it does a genre, that finds hope not in manufactured glossiness but in people. And whether you end up believing in it or not, that’s where the real magic lies.