Strange happenings are afoot.
Two singer-songwriters with the same initials—Kacey Musgraves and Kylie Minogue—are releasing albums featuring disco-country hybrids only a week apart. Even stranger, both album titles contain the word “golden.”
Humanity faces a choice. We can decry Minogue’s Golden and Musgraves’ Golden Hour as products of the Koch/Mercer-funded conspiracy they likely are. (KM! The fingerprints are everywhere.) Or we can fuse the best songs from each into some kind of Cosmic Countrypolitan Mixtape, to be enjoyed out in the Conspiracy Shed while figuring out where to thumbtack the photo of Kip Moore.
In the interest of getting to the bottom of things, I humbly suggest the latter.
It was inevitable that Kylie Minogue would eventually find her way to “Cotton Eye Joe.”
Since her disco-and-strings comeback hit “Spinning Around” in 2000, Minogue’s iconic singles have suggested a tour through dance pop history, a couple decades after the fact. With its eerie sliding melody, the global smash “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” owed a clear debt to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” “Slow,” Minogue’s follow-up UK chart topper, has been credibly grafted onto Kraftwerk’s “Das Model.” Her 2008 club hit “All I See” sounded like Ne-Yo, which is to say it sounded like Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” which was essentially a Toto song but still. “All the Lovers” was lush synthpop, an elegy for promiscuity in the warm glow of new love, as touching as anything on Erasure’s I Say I Say I Say.
Throughout Golden, Minogue and producer Sky Adams equate country music with four-on-the-floor two-steps, offbeat handclaps, and oodles of guitar reverb, all of which beat boring canards like “authenticity” and “concrete narrative details.” There’s also a whole lot of WHOOSHing, as you find on the lone Australian prairie . Lead single “Dancing” is the most euphoric example, with a clever turn of phrase—“When I go out, I wanna go out dancin’”—made heartrending by some chiming guitar ostinatos, and by the way Minogue’s sly voice undersells everything she sings. See also…
“High Horse” (Musgraves)
Like the Bee Gees-penned “Islands in the Stream,” Musgraves uses two different phrasing techniques that rely on each other, uh huh. On Golden Hour’s most club-ready song, she clips the ends of most of her phrases, letting the syncopations land with matter-of-fact abruptness. (“Why don’t you giddy-up, giddy-up/ And ride straight outta this town…”) But then her voice lifts into the title melisma like a mane blowing in the breeze—“You and your hiiiiiiigh hoooooorse” -- and the contrast renders both strategies more vivid. (This mutual reliance has nothing to do with actual islands in actual streams, which mostly just sit there and flood.)
In the least surprising news since Easter fell on a Sunday, the authenticity-mongering purist website Saving Country Music calls this “the worst track released before the album.” Like the Resurrection, Saving Country Music is a great mystery none can fathom. With its rubber band bass, dramatic violin vibratos, and the grooviest banjo since Beck’s “Sexx Laws,” “High Horse” could have easily been overstuffed, but Musgraves and her co-producers have arranged everything to sound spacious and warm.
“Lifetime to Repair” (Minogue)
On the other hand, sometimes you want overstuffed. “Lifetime to Repair” begins ominously—the oompah guitar sounds like one of those fanciful Esurance commercials, and Minogue adopts a strange, goony voice to sing about Cupid abandoning her. Is that what she imagines a twang sounds like? Could she be (gasp!) making fun of country music? But once she counts down to the gang chorus hoedown and the offbeat handclaps kick in, who cares? Sheer volume and an overcaffeinated fiddle blow any irony off the dance floor.
“Oh What a World” (Musgraves)
Caffeine not your speed? Then maybe it’s time to come down into this, Musgraves’ ode to mind-blowing substances and the revelations they impart. (“Things that swim with a neon glow… THESE ARE REAL THINGS.” Dude.) Truth be told, 12/13 of Golden Hour is midtempo or slower, and its backbeats rival Neil Young’s for glorious floppiness, as though the Crazy Horse rhythm section downed fistfuls of peyote and morphed into a giant hammock. Adding to the sense of magic all around us, “Oh What a World” features a guest spot from Daft Punk, or at least from a vocoder purporting to represent the Frenchmen. THESE ARE REAL THINGS… on a bestselling country album in 2018.
“Live a Little” (Minogue)
Remember back in the Music days when working with a French disco producer inspired Madonna to dress up like a cowhand? That was some real reverse Godard shit, and now “Live a Little” drags the record-scratchy cut-up guitar from Ms. Ciccone’s “Don’t Tell Me” into a new era of style biting. Minogue delivers more offbeat handclaps and WHOOSHing, yes, but also a majestic pure pop chorus, the kind of thing you might find on a mid-aughts tween movie soundtrack about mermaids. (Maybe mermaid cowboys? Come back to us, Kevin Costner!) But while Minogue has donned plenty of stunningly impractical outfits to promote Golden, she hasn’t yet attained the splendor of Madonna’s Giant Glitter Belt from the “Don’t Tell Me” video.
“Lonely Weekend” (Musgraves)
Speaking of cosmic American musicians and their impractical clothing, it’s worth remembering that Gram Parsons lived and recorded in Laurel Canyon, never far removed from the slick country rock he disavowed or from the psychedelics almost nobody disavowed. “Lonely Weekend” somehow encompasses all of that. With its haze of Fender Rhodes and background sighs, Musgraves’ slickest pop song turns its barstool ür-complaint—“It’s a lonely feeling without you” —into a galaxy brain of all-consuming emptiness. Like if the Eagles’ rhythm section downed fistfuls of peyote and morphed into an unoccupied neon Nudie suit.
“Raining Glitter” (Minogue)
The title of this liberationist dance floor anthem could’ve come from Nudie suit connoisseur Kesha, while its flatted chord progression could’ve come from P.M. Dawn’s The Bliss Album…? Bliss is the operative idea, with acoustic guitar and a buoyant bass burbling gently around one another, an effect not too far removed from Congolese soukous, if Congolese soukous featured tons more WHOOSHing.
Think nothing of it, friends, we’re just sticking to themes. This soothing, only slightly Muppety piano ballad is really pretty.
"Golden Hour" (Musgraves)
Like U2, both women have written songs attempting to sum up the conundrum that is Love. This playlist does not endorse those songs. The lyrics of Musgraves’ “Love is a Wild Thing” and Minogue’s “L.O.V.E.” scrape the bottom of the metaphysical and aesthetic barrels. “You can’t find it sitting on a shelf in a store”? “Love is a matter of taste/ Don’t let it go to waste”? Come on —those lines would embarrass even Bono, if he still had that capacity.
Fortunately, both writers find what they’re looking for with their title songs. Musgraves’ “Golden Hour” is a lovely ode to her new husband, who glows and sets her world on fire, yet has thus far evaded first responders in hazmat suits. Capping Minogue’s three decades as the reasonable voice of dance pop, “Golden” is even better: an ode to her 50th birthday later this year, featuring the album’s most sophisticated clapwerk and some high-plains-drifter woman-with-no-name ululating. Reinventing themselves with disco and country, with marriage and hard-won wisdom, Musgraves and Minogue have unearthed life’s treasures in places even they weren’t expecting.
Or, to paraphrase disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich: They’ve got these things, and they’re fucking Golden, and they’re not just giving them up for fucking nothing.