Country itself is a genre perpetually in identity crisis, and not quite as hostile to interlopers as stereotypes about it might imply. No.1 on Billboard’s country-songs chart right now is a breezy, drum-machine-laden duet between the twangy bros of Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha, typically a hook provider on electronic-dance songs. No. 2 is “Heaven” by newcomer Kane Brown, who unlike most country stars is a person of color, and as with many reigning country stars is unafraid of borrowing from modern R&B. Even off the radio, critical obsessions like Kacey Musgraves—she of crystalline voice and slight political edge—disregard ideas of genre purity. Her great new album, Golden Hour (coincidentally released a week before Minogue’s similarly-hued title), features vocoder and fake drums, which don’t break the feeling of genuine, down-home communion.
Given that permeability, the financial temptation for pop stars to head to Nashville is clear. Country is nearly tied for the most popular radio-music format in the nation, and the genre’s fans still buy physical albums, which is more lucrative for creators than having them streamed. But for the likes of Cyrus and Timberlake, going rustic, for whatever reason, can compromise their songwriting instincts. Which isn’t country at all. Whether the example is Johnny Cash or Sam Hunt, history shows that to sell a tale of heartbreak and homecoming with mandolin and yeehaws you still need to blend familiarity and novelty in a pleasing way. You still need to make it pop, the noun and the verb.
In a surprising way, Minogue gets this. A titan in Europe and Australia, but a more niche presence in American culture, she has been unapologetic about lacking a longstanding interest in country. It was the suggestion of her label that brought her to Nashville. For research, she watched Crazy Heart and Coal Miner’s Daughter. Most hilariously, she and her choreographers struggled to nail the line dancing for her “Dancing” music video. “We normally do stuff that’s really fluid in the torso, a lot of circular or figure-8 movements,” she told Rolling Stone. “With line dancing, God knows none of us are experts—it’s like a duck. The top half doesn’t seem to do much, and everything is happening below.”
The results of Minogue’s southern safari will not, as is sometimes the case with pop-to-country crossovers, alienate the artist’s longtime fans. She’s taken the trappings of country, not the chord progressions, and so the cores of even the rootsiest songs are standard-issue Minogue: verses of bittersweet pining meeting transcendently whooshing choruses, with synth squiggles and clapping and high-hats as uppers. A few tracks have nary a whiff of sawdust, and the hybrid moments are just good fun. An old Minogue trope of holding her oooohs comes to sound like a rancher’s yodel on “Stop Me From Falling,” for example.
The most country thing here, really, might be the vague but potent way she mines her own biography for angst. “Golden” celebrates her impending 50th birthday, and its pridefulness resonates given that Minogue has lately seen the standard-issue sexism thrown at divas transmute into ageism. The lead single, “Dancing,” features a bracing subtext of mortality—“when I go out” doesn’t just refer to the club—whose carpe diem message is especially powerful in light of her having overcome cancer. The closer, “Music’s Too Sad Without You,” is windswept and enveloping, a breakup song that makes you believe it, even without the knowledge that she really did recently undergo a tough split.