Should executives at Mattel follow through with their plans for a full-blown, thousand-year Barbie movie franchise, they might take a page from another enduring icon and star of the summer: Kylie Minogue. The similarities between the Australian pop diva and the American fashion doll have been remarked upon (and played into) for the better half of Minogue’s four-decade career, but apart from the unfailingly sunny demeanor, flamboyant costume changes, and elemental, almost psychedelic blondeness, Minogue has always foregrounded a humanity that no corporate property—never mind most pop stars—could hope to touch. “Self-knowledge is a truly beautiful thing and Kylie knows herself inside out,” Rufus Wainwright once exclaimed to The Guardian, “she is what she is and there is no attempt to make quasi-intellectual statements to substantiate it.” Minogue’s art is surface—fabulously so. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the singer made pop stardom as compelling a site of projection as Kate Moss was for modeling, collaborating with artists and filmmakers to depict her beauty and blondness through a darkly romantic lens or in campy, theatrical neon. Unlike Janet Jackson or Madonna, who sought to reveal fresh aspects of their psychology with each new release, the fiercely private Minogue has often opted to present herself at face value, even as she’s navigated intense personal upheaval.
To read too deeply into the lyrics of a megahit like “Padam Padam” would be an insult, so consider its charm: The single, which defied industry expectations, became an officially sanctioned Pride anthem, sparked dialogue about ageism on UK radio, and dominated the summer off the back of a million TikToks, is a testament to how invigorating and multifaceted the effect of the singer’s music can still be. It is also, taken for parts, a profoundly weird song: the rare hookup banger that manages to shout out Édith Piaf, keep time with your heartbeat, and elicit Pavlovian screams from gay bars in a mere two syllables. “Padam Padam” embodies a looseness of concept that slightly conflicts with the title of Minogue’s 16th album, Tension. It is the most relaxed of her recent LPs and by far the best, a return to form that privileges the emotional immediacy and kinetic sensation that’s defined the best of her music for years.
Minogue forayed into concept albums with 2018’s countrified Golden and 2020’s DISCO, which yielded a few undeniable gems but failed overall for the simple reason that they didn’t sound quite like Kylie. In the process of accommodating mirrorballs and cowboy hats, the singer sacrificed a degree of spontaneity, resulting in a self-conscious sound at odds with her self-possessed spirit. After drafting and then ditching plans for an ’80s-inspired album, Minogue and her collaborators—producers Biff Stannard, Duck Blackwell, and Jon Green—abandoned overarching themes in favor of a more casual process, recording with a portable mic setup in Airbnbs and hotel rooms whenever inspiration struck. The final product is a compendium of all the sounds Minogue is best known for: confectionary synth-pop, breezy Euro house, and propulsive EDM.
At some points it’s easy to recognize exactly which sounds the singer and producers were gunning for. The interwoven sing-song rap of “Hands” feels like an unambiguous stab at recreating Doja Cat’s “Say So,” while the flirtatious roller-rink strut of “Green Light” seems suspiciously Dua Lipa and Carly Rae Jepsen-adjacent, especially with its prominent, dreamy sax. This would be a problem if it weren’t for how capably Minogue finds a home for herself in the music. To sing something like Kylie is to sound as though you were the most deliriously fun and sexy woman on the planet, and apart from some pinched nasal notes on the otherwise excellent “Hold on to Now,” she’s beguiling and dynamic a presence as ever, even if the instrumentals occasionally register as a bit canned in comparison.
There’s no real unifying concept underlying Tension, except that almost all of it is concerned with the singer’s longtime pet themes: love and sex as all-encompassing, full-body highs. Checkered romantic histories present themselves as obstacles to swiftly overcome and breakups only ever slingshot the singer and her beau passionately back together. Nothing quite has the cinematic drama of her self-titled’s “Confide in Me” or the slinky come-on of Body Language’s “Slow,” but what the new record lacks in variety is redeemed by full-hearted energy. “Hold On to Now” is a Robyn-esque plea for romantic faith, while the rapturously fun “Things We Do for Love” pits her racing heart against a euphoric synth-pop beat. The title track and “Padam Padam” are the record’s camp highs, with the singer vamping through pounding piano house to deliver some truly ridiculous lyrics. Both songs land on the right side of silly-serious and wield sledgehammer-subtle choruses with the feverish commitment required to make a hook like “Call me Kylie-lie-lie/Don’t imitate-tate-tate/Cool like sorbet-et-et” feel ecstatic rather than clunky.
“Vegas High” and “Ten Out of Ten” are the only tracks that register as flops: the former feels like an unambiguous advertisement for her forthcoming Vegas residency, while the latter is far too bloodless and vanilla to remotely merit its watered-down ballroom chorus. At its best, Kylie’s music possesses an intense physicality; energizing in a way that bypasses the head and appeals directly to the heart and body. This is also true of the best of Tension, and when the romantic urgency of her lyrics and the bracing runner’s high of her music commingle it reminds you that what is most glamorous and definitive about the singer is not only her sustained self-belief but her capacity for making it felt.
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