As the platonic ideal of a pop star aging gracefully in her career, Kylie Minogue knows what kind of artist she is and for 35 years has stuck to that identity — and better than that, embraced it. “Tension” is her sixteenth album, and it’s not only as good as the ones she released 10 or 20 or more years ago, it’s just like them: full of shiny, irresistible, easily digestible songs whose sole purpose is to make listeners fall in love and dance, if not always in that order. As consistent as her 2020 release “Disco” (if palpably more exuberant for being recorded and released post-pandemic), “Tension” exudes a return-to-normalcy joy that showcases her well-established strengths as a singer, songwriter and performer of pop music.
The first single “Padam Padam,” released in May, threw down an impressive gauntlet. Though it only floated to No. 34 on the Top 40 chart, it instantly became a contender for the nebulous, informal but always contentious prize of “song of the summer,” especially after her LGBTQ fans appropriated it for their worldwide pride events. At once vintage and ultra-modern Kylie, the content of the song seemed like a warm-up for the love affair that was yet to come with the album: its singer finds a suitable partner on the dancefloor and sparks ensue. Written by Norwegian singer/songwriter Ina Wroldsen and songwriter/producer Peter Rycroft (aka Lostboy), the song captures the exact energy of the moment as music lovers flock back to clubs and festivals, and Minogue’s plastic vocals adapt effortlessly to the futuristic, pulsating throb of producer Rycroft’s musical accompaniment.
Whether the choice exemplifies a slightly more traditional release rollout than the seeming current-day strategy to hammer listeners until another song sticks or reflects a shrewd patience to let “Padam Padam” fully embed itself in the pop firmament, it was nonetheless surprising that Minogue waited until the end of August to issue a second single, “Tension.” Yet the song seems to immediately provide an explanation: offering robotic precision instructions to “Touch me right there / Don’t be shy / Boy I don’t bite / You know where,” she beautifully escalates the heart-pounding romance of “Padam” into bedroom provocation, even over a keyboard riff (courtesy her longtime collaborators Biff Stannard, Duck Blackwell and Jon Green) that feels lifted from a 1990s club classic.
Brazenly sexy in comparison to its flirty predecessor, “Tension” aims for dancefloor ecstasy that leads to a more furtive kind of enjoyment, but together they offer a sort of template for listener expectations: rather than making the best of a challenging cultural situation — as she did with “Disco” — by creating a collection of throwback songs that pay tribute to the musical hedonism, both silly and symphonic, of the 1970s (and the entire pre-pandemic era), Minogue is plunging forward as if our collective opportunities to dance and have fun were never kneecapped. “Hold On to Now,” as much in its musical as lyrical content, explicitly says as much, building from a burbling synthesizer melody to a sweeping four-count beat that feels destined for an unforgettable end-of-night music festival encore, complete with a gospel choir backing Minogue up.
Where the previous record drew inspiration from disco, “Tension” pulls more heavily from ’80s pop, especially on tracks like “Things We Do for Love,” a more stripped-down version of which you could easily imagine Kevin Bacon dancing to back in 1984. “You Still Get Me High” delivers a dancefloor sneak attack by opening at half-tempo, grafting the dreamy love of the Cars’ “Drive” to the propulsive yearning of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” during choruses where Minogue speculates “maybe it’s the moonlight” before admitting “you still get me high.” Later, “Green Light” features a saxophone solo that could have come from a lost recording session for Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Conversely, “One More Time” feels like a clearinghouse for the singer’s many influences, injecting a flute riff stolen from Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” over an uptempo beat that evokes Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” as she sings a chorus that had absolutely better get overlaid with Daft Punk’s song of the same name. Otherwise, the performer of the mashup classic “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out Of My Head” is sleeping on the job.
Sequencing “Hands” and “Green Light” right next to one another feels like a response to the younger artists who have picked up Minogue’s mantle in recent years — a loving one, but a reminder that she can comfortably keep pace. On the former, she “raps” in the same way that Ariana Grande might; on the latter, she delivers a smooth, string-laden party jam that in an ideal world will soon be mixed on dance floors worldwide with Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” from the “Barbie” soundtrack. Of the album’s 11 tracks, only “Vegas High” feels slightly calculated, a geographically specific anthem that cynical minds might suggest was created as an obligatory theme song for her upcoming Sin City residency. Yet if the metaphor (“We’re just a moment that’s written in the sand / I see you shimmering like a fantasy”) feels a bit forced, Kylie sings it with enough conviction to sell it, whether or not it eventually finds a life beyond the doors of the Venetian.
Although there are few recent mainstream tributes to ballroom culture and its surrounding community bigger and more open than Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” (and really the entirety of “Renaissance”), Minogue’s collaboration with producer Oliver Heldens, “10 Out of 10,” ably stakes a confident claim in this expanding canon. With six credited songwriters (including Minogue herself), it feels like Heldens could have rattled off at least one or two more categories for the object of the song’s affection to achieve the eponymous top score. But after she sings “Wanna kiss me where the sun don’t shine / Wow, wanna devour me boy, I might get wet, bring a towel,” easily the raunchiest lyric on the album, it’s clear that the song is more interested in serving “sex siren” than speaking about it.
“Tension” ends with “Story,” a love song that feels just a bit more pointed than the others on the album — possibly about someone specific — but it shouldn’t be confused with a deeper confession of feeling. As a veteran pop star, Minogue has long since learned how to transform and elevate her personal experiences into shared, even universal sentiments. That said, the track spotlights her vocal range better than any other on the album, as she hits high notes in the chorus that it’s easy to forget she’s capable of, and she captures all of that palpable, loving emotion while also putting the listener through a hardcore workout (expect this track to show up in aerobics class playlists soon) in just over three minutes.
Of course, that’s what she does, and has done for three and a half decades. Far from minimizing her talents, much less the genre in which she’s become an enduring staple, she’s burnished pop music not by trying to turn it into something that it’s not, but showing her fans — and the world — how good it can be when done with passion, sincerity and consistency. Consequently, after delivering a record of such unrestrained joy and fun, my only quibble is with “Tension’s” title, though maybe what she’s referring to is not just that great second single but the challenge she issues for the rest of the industry keep up with what continues to be an impeccable run.