It starts with what sounds like the neigh of a horse, and Kylie, clad in faded double denim, descending a curved staircase like a sweetheart of the rodeo. A live band, looking only slightly rueful in their red neckerchiefs, like pet dogs in bandannas, rev up the title track from the singer’s forthcoming album, Golden, all distant Tarzan hollers and finger clicks. A glitter cannon discharges the first of many, many payloads.
Throughout the singer’s long career (by her own reckoning tonight, she’s “49 and ten-twelfths”), fans have never needed to mine Kylie’s output beyond the topsoil to find a vein of humour, or a gem or two indicating that her best work is being produced to arch and knowing standards. For every Locomotion – Stock, Aitken and Waterman-era froth – there has been a Can’t Get You Out of My Head (club-pop hammer blow of genius). This latest Minogue incarnation – shall we call her Dixie Minogue? Kyle Miner’s Daughter? – is, thankfully, no exception, as Kylie’s playfulness wins out tonight over what could be a high-fructose corn-fest.
You may have picked up on Dancing, Kylie’s recent single, on its acoustic guitar and its video, in which Kylie line-dances with death. Fans, friends, Kylie’s record company and reviewers are gathered here in the plush surrounds of this fabled cabaret club for an intimate set that doubles as the launch of the singer’s 14th album, a massive pivot to country music. It is at once unexpected, eye-rollingly cheesy and perfectly understandable, given the circumstances.
Any number of artists would say that the safest place for a broken heart is in the studio. Others would attest that heartbreak’s natural home is Nashville, the county seat of country music. Kylie’s Golden takes those thoughts and runs with them, on horseback.
One very public broken engagement, and two weeks spent writing within whistling distance of the Grand Ole Opry, have resulted in a clutch of new songs in which Kylie tussles gamely with unfamiliar tropes such as cars, radios and mortality, and more established ones, like kisses and glitter.
There’s one new song that is really disco business as usual, with a little country guitar motif thrown on for the hell of it: Raining Glitter. But equally, a bearded man called Big Luke plays banjo on a song called A Lifetime to Repair. In a recent interview, Kylie noted how she and former producer Stuart Price came up with a “Dolly Parton litmus test” around the time they were recording Kylie’s 2010 album, Aphrodite: if the song sounded good on acoustic guitar, it was a winner (a doubtful industry truism that might just bear scrutiny for pop but hardly for electronic music or hip-hop).
Yes, there are missteps and squandered opportunities on Kylie’s Dolly Parton litmus test writ large. Midway through this set of new songs and lesser-heard oldies (All the Lovers!), Kylie pays homage to Dolly Parton – or, as Kylie puts it, “tipping the hat, or the tiny baby fascinator Stetson you’re wearing” – and duets with Big Luke on Islands in the Stream, a 1983 hit for Parton and Kenny Rogers. Literally any half-baked Dolly Parton B-side would have been a better Stetson fascinator-tip to one of America’s finest songwriters than this ghastly tune originally written by the Bee Gees as an R&B song (which explains the lyrically unfortunate “uh-huh”: works in R&B, less so elsewhere).
Kylie’s normally a dab hand at duets: for an artist whose collaborations have so often expanded her remit – with Nick Cave on 1995’s Where the Wild Roses Grow, or Robbie Williams on 2000’s Kids – you do feel despondent when Jack Savoretti arrives on a stool to prop up one of Golden’s least gilded songs, Music’s Too Sad Without You. A pop star of 30 years’ standing, one who recently won the right to be known mononymously after reality TV’s Kylie Jenner tried to copyright the name, deserves better than this common-or-garden tune-pusher.
There are issues, too, with songs such as Sincerely Yours, which betray the influence of Taylor Swift collaborators Liz Rose and Nathan Chapman on the writing of Golden. If you squint a little, too, Kylie’s blond shag-cut with fringe, and her smoky eye makeup, also have more than a little Swift about them.
But to make up for all that, there is a large denim patch in the shape of a star on Kylie’s epoch-defining behind, and the pervasive sense that Minogue is now selling ersatz twang-pop in the full knowledge that it is just that: a surface reading of a rich genre, lit by the shimmer of a mirror ball as much as by rhinestones.
When she does it with gusto, you’re won over. The rather good Shelby ’68 is a song about a very specific kind of Ford Mustang, the kind that Kylie’s dad owns in “candy apple red”. It’s a love song to escapism, to doing “everything wrong” that feels “so right”, and just nimble enough to dodge the cliches of the format. “I know you’re gonna break my heart/ When I get in your car,” sings Kylie, kittenishly. It’s miles better than Golden’s other carpe diem song, Live a Little.
Tonight, as on the album, Shelby ’68 is followed by Radio On, a song about turning a dial in the hope of salvation. (No one has, as yet, found a killer rhyme for “Alexa, please play my favourite Spotify playlist”.) This is Kylie at her most genuinely country, up close to the microphone, unforced and yearning. “There in the moment, I’m strong,” she sings, actually quavering a little.
And herein lies the album’s pull: the grace under pressure of this relatable diva, having a merry wallow in the genre that suffers with a smile. Cancer, chemo, cad after cad, a Kardashian: nothing, it seems, can dent Kylie’s mojo.
Strip out the lyrics from the tunes, though, and they are so sad. The superficially upbeat A Lifetime to Repair actually requires a hanky the size of a king-sized sheet. “If I get hurt again,” trills Kylie, “I’ll need a lifetime to repair.”
Then there’s the encore and Dancing, a song that easily ranks among Kylie’s finest. First, she needs a lifetime to repair; now, she’s throwing around intimations of mortality. “When I go out, I wanna go out dancing,” avows Kylie, as she prances back up the stairs.