Does Taylor Swift have any regrets? In 2012, she put her acoustic guitar collection in storage and swapped Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe for a Brooklyn dive bar, operating under the assumption that she’d find a wider audience outside of the country-pop bubble. Now, six years later, the genre hybrid she perfected (then rejected) is the most fashionable it’s ever been, presenting an enticing challenge for pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga who have grown tired of the club and are seeking a new kind of cultural credibility.
The latest addition to this surge of country-pivoting pop stars is Australian dance floor icon Kylie Minogue. Her new album Golden follows in the footsteps of Timberlake and Gaga (and before that Kesha and Miley Cyrus) by adopting country tropes like cowboy boots and twanging guitars with enough irony for anyone who doesn’t fuck with LeAnn Rimes. The result is fun, camp, and, as Kylie readily admits, relatively unacquainted with its own musical heritage. Maybe she would have gotten away with the shameless pastiche if her timing had been different, but no such luck: Kacey Musgraves has just released the similarly titled and critically-lauded Golden Hour. Now, we’re faced with two records trying to mix country and pop into something palatable to the audiences of both. Golden Hour, a masterclass in genre synthesis, is the platonic ideal of a country-pop record. Golden, on the other hand, is an admirable but confused attempt at it.
In Australia and much of Europe, Kylie—she’s sued Jenner in order to assert her privilege of going by first name only—needs no introduction. She’s a pop princess revered for good reason, rising to fame in the late 1980s as a soap opera star with a suite of sugary hits. Kylie’s done literally everything: she re-imagined herself as Nick Cave’s gothic muse in the 1990s, then released a triumphant trio of perfectly zeitgeisty dance pop albums in the 2000s . She would have to literally kill a man in order to lose fans at this point, and even then would probably continue to chart in the UK. So you can view Golden as a low-risk passion project—even a vanity project—for an artist with talent and imagination to spare, as much as it takes interest in current Nashville-adjacent pop trends.
Golden is a joyful listen. Lead single “Dancing” makes for a surreal fan experience because it is so markedly Kylie, except with a genre difference that’s initially difficult to detect. Designed, like the best of her hits, for pre-drinks with friends, it hints at a glorious night ahead: “When I go out I want to go out dancing,” goes the jubilant country disco chorus. The album’s second single “Stop Me From Falling” takes on the same exuberant themes, while keeping the country nods light. Other songs don’t feel as sure of themselves: “Shelby ‘68” literally rhymes the words “heart” and “car” in what sounds like a fake Southern accent, while “A Lifetime To Repair” sounds like it was recorded in a city girl’s approximation of a farmhouse. There are plenty of perfect Kylie choruses on Golden, although you can’t help but feel they’d sound better minus the banjos. Which surely can’t have been the intention.
The best moments on Golden are those in which Minogue resists the call of the banjo and attempts to channel the clear-hearted confessional spirit that makes for a classic country ballad. Closing duet “Music’s Too Sad Without You” is sincere and simple and effective, its lyrical darkness recalling some of that “Where The Wild Roses Grow” goth cred. The album reflects deeply on ageing, conflating the pain of getting older with the ache of heartbreak—a compelling meditation that’s rarely broached in pop music, and is actually well-suited to country. But Golden is still hopelessly overwhelmed by the enormity of the task it has set itself.
It doesn’t help that Kylie is unwittingly competing (on some level) with Kacey Musgraves, the 29-year-old Texan who possesses something the vast majority of country music artists do not: cultural capital on the internet. She’s a weed-smoking, Instagram story-addicted millennial whose 2015 sophomore album Pageant Material introduced a dreamy Lana-goes-to-Nashville aesthetic that was irresistible to even the most hardened anti-country snob. Golden Hour builds on this, successful in its attempt to whittle pop-country to a sharper point, rather than break out of it completely. It’s a record about love and happiness and inner peace (“Oh what a world/And then there is you” she marvels on one of many memorable choruses), and most of the time could not be more clear-hearted or earnest. The dreamy sweetness is always tempered with neatly snapshotted reality (“Only got a couple friends,” she admits to herself on “Lonely Weekend”). This is country pop music recorded by a woman who knows exactly who she is, and what she likes: the twanging acoustic guitar is unapologetic, but so is the vocoder.
While Kylie’s record at its worst sounds like country music as conceived by someone familiar with the genre’s tropes only at their most tired and overplayed, the clever lyrical simplicity of Golden Hour recalls the best of Dolly Parton or Patty Griffin, if those artists were twenty somethings in 2018. Musgraves has a voice that holds its own, and lyrics that cut with their plainly spoken truths. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight? Happy and sad at the same time,” she sings, evoking that perfect house party you know will end with a hangover.
Music would be boring if everyone stayed in their lane. As Musgraves proves on Golden Hour, country music and pop aesthetics are far from incompatible. Kylie is stepping into completely unchartered territory for her with Golden, and it’s only natural that a newcomer might stick to tried-and-true cliches then tack them onto the core style and lyrical themes that she’s loved for. Her search for that country-disco synergy is far from pointless; the best songs on Golden prove that she’s not entirely out of her depth. If only she’d taken the whole thing just a little more seriously.
So here’s a tip for the next pop star who decides to pull on a fringed jacket and learn line-dancing: don’t just casually dip your toes into a genre that has produced some of the greatest American songwriting ever. Country music is more than plaid shirts and pink Malibu Stacey-style hats. These two records, so similar in their intent but so contrasting in what they actually achieve, prove it.
Katherine Gillespie is an editor at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.