Music

Kylie Minogue: X

Minogue returns with an album that sums up both halves of her two-decade career: one half is all filler, and the other is filled with the best dance-pop singles you're likely to hear all year.


Kylie Minogue

X

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2008-04-01
UK Release Date: 2007-11-26
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iTunes

Kylie Minogue is in an awkward and unfortunate position. After achieving worldwide success with 2002's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and its subsequent albums (and lets not forget her 1988 remake of "The Loco-Motion"), Minogue seemed posed to be Europe's biggest dance-diva, second only to Madonna. Then came the news: in 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She put a stop to her mega-successful "Showgirl" tour mid-run while she underwent treatment, herself shaken by the abruptness of it all. What's remarkable, however, is that she not only recovered: she completely rebounded, soon re-launching her tour under a new name (the "Homecoming Tour") and smiling the whole time through, thanking her fans for their support during her difficult time.

This all leads up to X, an album that's being watched by all because Kylie is suddenly in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of position. With her struggle with cancer detailed extensively in the media (particularly the UK tabloids), it's largely expected that she'll address this issue on her subsequent recordings. After all, Sheryl Crow played right into such tabloid fodder with Detours (addressing both her own cancer struggle and subsequent Lance Armstrong breakup quite bluntly), so why shouldn't Minogue? Yet if she does begin devoting songs/albums to the documentation of her struggle, some will cry that she's profiting off of a tragic scenario; conversely, her failing to write about such circumstances will be viewed as a squandered opportunity, a chance to say something deeply profound that would reach millions of people. So what's a Kylie to do?

Simple: she's going to rock out.

From the sexy bass that sets up the opening track "2 Hearts", its obvious that she's not only going to go back to her disco sex-kitten persona, but she's going full-out this time 'round. Much like Madonna (before her) and Britney (after), Minogue has a wafer-thin voice that sounds better after armies of producers have tinkered with it. What makes Minogue's voice work, however, is her conviction. When she wants to play up her sexy come-ons, she totally engages the listener: you believe the sex-kitten persona wholeheartedly. "2 Hearts" -- aside from being one of her best singles in years -- makes for an incredible album opener. Yet Minogue doesn't stop there. She is on fire for the first half of X. "2 Hearts" leads to the top-notch electro stomp "Like a Drug" which then morphs into the synth-happy workout "In Your Arms", a track that absolutely demands your attention. Minogue, co-writing half of the material here, doesn't offer any new lyrical insights (apparently, she likes to rock her body), but she sounds like she's having a damn good time. She provides god-knows-how-many electronic robot voices during the sly "Speakerphone", but unlike Britney's phoned-in performances during Blackout, Minogue never falters once, hitting the mark each and every time. Toss in the excellent "Sensitized" (which sounds like it was built entirely out of E.S. Posthumus samples) and the very Daft Punk-styled "Heart Beat Rock", and you have one helluva dance record.

Unfortunately, X doesn't stop there. Immediately following "Heart Beat Rock", we are treated to a long stream of high-class filler. "The One", in fact, could easily have been recorded during her Stock, Aitken & Waterman days (which, it should be noted, is not a good thing). From there, its just a laundry list of forgettable tunes: the Ace of Base-affected "No More Rain", the Kelly Clarkson-ish "Stars", the trying-too-hard sex-romp "Nu-Di-Ty" (which, coincidentally, wouldn't sound too out of place on Blackout), and the so-so closing track "Cosmic". What saves the second-half of X is a song called "All I See", a gorgeous ballad built around a simple harp-sample; its effect, however, is dampened by its "remixed" reappearance at the end of the US release. The track is completely identical to the original except it now features a phoned-in guest rap from Mims, making for an utterly pointless addition to the album.

But we haven't even gotten to "Wow" yet.

Kylie's all-time greatest tracks ("Shocked", "Too Far", "Come Into My World", and yes, "The Locomotion") all have one thing in common: they are top-notch moments of escapism, three-minute bursts of joy that are nothing short of radio-ready brilliance. For those who still have a copy of her Manic Street Preachers-assisted Impossible Princess, then you have one of the most crazed, damn-near perfect dance-pop albums ever created. "Wow" could fit in there: it's jam-packed with peppy melody, built around a simple, addictive piano melody that is soon shot into the pop stratosphere. It's a great track as is, but when the chorus hits and Kylie's "Wowowow!" croon is shoved through a wah-wah pedal (no, really), you can practically hear the sound of all other nearby pop singles being evaporated in a single instant.

It's a great track off of a split album, earmarked by extraordinary pop songs and regrettable filler in an almost perfect half-and-half ratio. The filler tracks aren't as much bad as they are just fleeting, lacking the decked-out razzle-dazzle that makes songs like "2 Hearts" and "Wow" so extraordinary. When confronted with the decision to address her recent struggles through her music, Kylie wound up unleashing her wildest dancefloor urges, and judging from the half-there ballads that bring down X's second half, it was obviously the smart decision.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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