Album Review: Kylie Minogue - Tension

A vinyl of Kylie Minogue’s album ‘Tension’, laid on a sand / dirt surface.  The cover art features a close-up shot of Kylie Minogue bathed in green light, holding up a diamond in front of her right eye.

Disco was a bit of a weird album for me. Because on paper the premise of it made sense. It did make me roll my eyes a little, because of how on the nose the title was. But still. I got it. And the time was right. But Disco wasn’t the slam dunk it should have been. There were great songs on it, but it was also really lacking and a bit repetitious. And unfortunately for Kylie, others had already released disco and dance albums which were far better. She herself had even released disco leaning albums in the past which were better. And then to make it even worse, Tension comes along and features more of what Disco needed. But the double edged sword with Tension is that it also shares a similar energy to Disco itself - lacking and a bit repetitious. If you take the best from both albums, you get something kinda great. But unfortunately that one album isn’t what we’re dealing with here.

Kylie is a very predictable music act. You can guess what her next album might be just based on music trends. But Kylie’s predictability is kind of her charm. Kylie has taken some swings throughout her career and given us a couple of zigs when everybody expected her to zag. But Kylie isn’t an act who takes big risks musically. Even the risks she has taken have still managed to fit within the pop zeitgeist at the moment of their release, even if the sound was different for her musically i.e Kylie Minogue, Impossible Princess and Golden.

Kylie being predictable is not a criticism. Moulding specifically to trends is Kylie’s thing and it works for her. In a world where so many pop acts are hell-bent on trying to be different and wax philosophical about why their album sounds the way it does and make out it’s this unique body of work, when in actuality it’s just a copy of what whomever-the-fuck released last year; Kylie’s straight-forwardness and avoidance of such shit is welcomed. She doesn’t try to pretend she and her work are things they are not. She knows she’s a trend jumping kinda gal and embraces it. And you know that whatever she does, that she’s going to deliver it in a Kylie package and that you are going to get a couple of really amazing songs outta whatever album she releases. But the problem I’ve had with Kylie for a while now is exactly that last part. Releasing okay albums with a couple of great songs, but not great albums. Even when the concept, the sound and the roster of songwriting and production talent is right there for greatness to be made.

Something I feel has happened with Kylie’s albums since Light Years, is that they all centre on a central theme or an idea. And whilst the ideas are sustained musically, the quality isn’t quite sustained in the same way. There are always just enough singles to get the hits and at least one of those singles will be fantastic. But the experience of listening to Kylie’s albums for me is always ‘This could have been so much better’. Even when the pieces are right there. And this is unfortunately the case with Tension.

Tension for the most part is defined by its singles “Padam Padam” and the album title track. But as a body of work it doesn’t really say that much. Tension feels like a sum of parts. It feels like the other half to Disco and also a spiritual sister to X. That last part may have elicited a ‘Huh!?’. But lemme get into why X came to mind.

X was an absolute mess. Not just the final product, but everything concerning how it came together. Nobody could pin down what the album should be, so the end result wound up being this clusterfuck which didn’t work. A clusterfuck which has unfortunately become part of the legacy of X. But another part of the legacy of X was just how many of its unreleased / leftover songs wound up leaking, and how good some of them were. And now here’s Tension, 16 years later. An album which is more consistent than X, but still marred by the uncertainty over what it should be; with a whole bunch of scrapped songs leaking to the internet. It’s clear to why most of them were scrapped, but “Running” is not one of those songs. “Things We Do for Love” or “You Still Get Me High” could have easily been bumped for it. And to add further insult to injury, Tension has two special editions with feature bonus tracks which completely shit on what made the standard edition of the album. “Story” should have been bumped for “Somebody to Love”. “Hands” or “Green Light” should have been bumped for “Heavenly Body”. And what the fuck is that “10 Out of 10” song even doing on the album!? As was the case with some of the scrapped material from X, one or two of these songs may find life on a compilation album, a special concept release or the setlist of a second Anti Tour. But it still makes me shake my head at how clearly good songs which would have made Tension better were just left off or relegated to bonus tracks.

A shot from the Tension album photoshoot, by Haris Nukem. Featuring Kylie in a short pixie cut and a red catsuit.
Kylie Minogue - Tension | Kylie Minogue/Darenote

The thing which really surprised me about Tension when I first listened to it was how 80s it was. Between “Padam Padam”, the album title track, “Vegas High” and the album cover, I really thought that 90s dance music was going to be the sonic motif of the album, and Tension does feature some of this. But the 80s songs and the disco cuts really do anchor most of it. And unfortunately, they drag the album down.

Kylie had gone on the record to share that Tension was originally intended to be an 80s album, but the idea was canned at the realisation that Disco and Golden were both tied to a specific sound, and that it’d be better not to put that restriction on herself and her collaborators for a third album in a row. Hearing this is unsurprising, because remnants of that 80s album are still very present here. But Tension really would have been a better sell if the weighting were towards 90s dance, given that they are the strongest offerings on the album. Everybody likes “Padam Padam”. “Tension” is great. “Hold On to Now” is absolutely incredible. “Vegas High” has no business being as good as it is for what is essentially a jingle for Kylie’s Vegas residency. It’s just a shame that these songs only make up about a third of the album, with the lion’s share being rather uninspired 80s songs and a couple of cuts which sound like overspill from Disco. I adore the absolute shit out of “One More Time”. But it absolutely has no place on Tension and is 100% a Disco cut.

Tension just doesn’t feel whole. It sounds like three album concepts which are being flirted with, with none of them being committed to. And this isn’t to say that an album can’t have more than one thing going on. But you have to still make it feel like a body of work. Like it’s a whole and considered thing. And it’s unfortunate that Tension comes after something like Beyoncé’s Renaissance, which manages to do what I feel Tension tried to, but does it far better. Despite Renaissance bouncing from decade to decade and giving a variety of sounds, it still manages to feel cohesive and like a singular body of work. Where-as Tension does not, despite it running a far smaller gamut of sounds.

But Tension is also thrown off somewhat by one song.

“Padam Padam”.

Yep. I’m as surprised as you are.

To use Beyoncé as an example once again (albeit with a different album), “Padam Padam” is the “Formation” of Tension. In the sense that it is not indicative of the sound of the album and doesn’t fit it; despite the visuals and themes of the music video encapsulating a theme of the album as a whole.

“Padam Padam” opens the album, which I don’t think was the right choice. That honour should have been given to “Hold On to Now”. But I also get why “Padam Padam” was placed as the opening song. There is no other place to sequence it on the album because it is such an outlier. You can’t stick it in the middle because it’d be too disruptive. And you certainly can’t close the album with it. Despite being the lead single for the album and so much of the branding for Tension somewhat being centred on the song (the logo for Kylie’s name looking like an ECG wave), “Padam Padam” is not reflective of Tension at all. In fact, it’s difficult to pick a song which really sums up Tension or feels representative of it as a whole, which is also part of the problem with the album.

Tension doesn’t feature any one song I could say is flat out terrible. I don’t like “Hands” or “Green Light” at all. Both sound like rip offs of Doja Cat’s “Say So”, and they also don’t sound like Kylie. They come off like Kylie performing as somebody else. But I don’t think they are terrible and I can hear why some would find them charming. Hearing Kylie rap on “Hands” is kinda cool for the novel factor. But there is a by numbers type of energy which permeates certain songs. “Things We Do for Love” sounds like a stock 80s song. It’s beyond generic. “You Still Get Me High” is just Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” on the verses and a chorus from a Chvrches song, which sounds far more interesting on paper than the end result wound up being. And this is what gets me. The concepts behind some of the songs are strong and should put Kylie in her element and yet…they don’t. Just like Disco. 80s Kylie should have been the highlights of Tension and yet they’re not.

Between Kylie debuting in the 80s with Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Biff Stannard being a pop loving white gay who was clubbing in the 90s, whilst also writing and producing for some pretty big British pop acts during that period; it’s strange to me that Tension wasn’t a straight up 90s dance album and that the 80s songs didn’t quite punch through the way in which they should have.

A shot from the Tension album photoshoot, by Haris Nukem. Featuring Kylie in a leather trench coat, with her arm up, covering part of her face.
Kylie Minogue - Tension | Kylie Minogue/Darenote

There are instances on Tension where really good songs hit a 9, but just don’t make it to a 10 because of some small or stupid reason. “Hold On to Now” is an album highlight. The first time I listened to Tension I was stuck on this song for a good hour until I managed to move onto the rest of the album. It’s incredible. If there was one song which could and should have felt representative of Tension as a whole, it’s “Hold On to Now”. But more so, it is also the one song on the album which feels representative of Kylie. It manages to tether Kylie from so many different periods of her career, sounding like this melting pot of songs she’s done. There’s a bit of “All the Lovers”. There’s a bit of “Say Something”. There’s a bit of “Wouldn’t Change a Thing”. There’s a bit of “Golden”. And a whole lot more. It’s stirring. It’s magic. It’s euphoric. It’s also a rare instance of Kylie giving us a song that hits you in the heart. The sentiment of the song is one which is universal and will touch a lot of people. Buuuuuuuuuuut, the song is far too short. “Hold On to Now” sounds like it is just rushing to end from the second it starts. The intro should have been longer. The second verse should have been longer. The outro should have been longer. It’s insane to me to have a song like this which is so 90s and euphoric, and yet it doesn’t allow us to sit in it for longer. It bothered me so much that I made my own extended version of it.

Song length is a problem across music at the moment and it’s ruining albums in some cases, and Tension falls prey to this trend. It wouldn’t go as far as to say that it ruins Tension. But it does result in some songs not quite sticking with you the way they should, because you always feel like you are being rushed to the next song. There is no song on this album which lets you revel in it, which is bizarre to me for an album of 70s, 80s and 90s cuts - the decades where songs were all about the revel. “Padam Padam” is catchy as fuck. But it is far too short. And again, it bothered me to a point of making my own extended mix before Kylie had released her hack job extended mix. “Vegas High” is fun and euphoric, but as with “Hold On to Now” it doesn’t let you relish in it for long enough. Kylie is out here giving the RGB (255, 255, 255) gays bops, but isn’t giving them songs long enough to let the poppers hit. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kylie released an Extended Mixes version of Tension, as she did with Disco. It would certainly make more sense for Tension than it did for Disco. Some of the songs on Disco should have been longer by proxy because…they’re disco songs. Disco as a genre was known for it’s long grooves. But none of the songs felt like they NEEDED to be longer. Where-as on Tension, a whole bunch of these songs are too short and in need of an extra 30 to 60 seconds of music. It’s like Kylie is trying to kick you out of the club early, versus an album like Renaissance, which wants you to stay in the club the whole night. But if the extended mixes are going to be of the quality we got with “Tension”, “Padam Padam” and Disco (with the exceptions of “Magic” and “Say Something”) then Kylie shouldn’t bother. The only consolation prize for the tracklist and songs being short is that any lull in the album doesn’t last for long.

Short song runtimes means less Kylie. But the production choices on some of these songs also give us a lot less Kylie. One of the things about Disco that I liked was that Kylie was doing different things with her voice and not being afraid to really push it, and on Tension she does the same - undoubtedly a byproduct of her engineering herself and being unafraid to try new things when she’s recording herself alone. But, some of the coolest vocal moments from Kylie either end up buried in the mix, smothered in filters and reverb, or lost in the overproduction. Kylie isn’t an artist that anybody looks to for amazing vocals. But that doesn’t mean her voice should always be tucked away in songs. Tucking vocals away can work if it adds to the sonics of a song, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of losing vocals. I will again use Beyoncé’s Renaissance album as an example. Renaissance features so many songs in which Beyoncé’s background vocals are set really far back into the music, as though they are part of it. But we still get a whole lot of her vocals on the songs; so it’s not like we’re losing anything. Comparatively, I do feel that with some songs on Tension, Kylie’s vocals are handled in a way which reduces her presence on songs. Kylie always does gives really nice ad-libs, but they are never front and centre. Kylie’s voice has a nice quality to it when it’s layered and harmonised, but we don’t get enough of this either. I really want Kylie to stop being shy with her vocals and not being afraid to have them mixed to be more forward on songs. It’s a shame that on an album where Kylie gives so much character, seems so free and is having so much fun with the creative process, that she offsets it all by having her vocals be pushed back across so many songs.

A shot from the Tension album photoshoot, by Haris Nukem. Featuring a shot of Kylie laying down, with bold swaths of colours (primarily red) superimposed over it.
Kylie Minogue - Tension | Kylie Minogue/Darenote

One of the coolest things about Tension is the sense of where Kylie is at this point in her life and her career. She sounds so assured, content and happy on this album. She really does radiate light and joy on some of these songs in a way she hasn’t done for quite some time. This is going to sound corny as fuck, but Tension really does feel like a nice warm hug from Kylie to her fans. It’s just a warm album. That’s the best way I can put it. And this is a stark contrast to Disco, which felt very cold. Disco was recorded during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, with Kylie having to co-write songs remotely over Zoom and engineer herself in her living room. Every time Kylie spoke about Disco, she spoke about the isolating experience of creating it and you can hear it in the music. Not only does Kylie sometimes sound over it and unengaged, but just from a sonic perspective, Disco didn’t sound as lush and as big as it should have. A couple of the songs sounded like reference tracks and demos. And on songs such as “Where Does the DJ Go?” you can hear hissing from Kylie not using a proper studio microphone and not being in a soundproofed room. Disco is an album that I will always identify with 2020, the pandemic and lockdowns, because the despair and loneliness of the experience (understandably) found its way into the music. Only on the Special Guest List Edition of Disco did we get more of the warmth and lushness.

A shot from the Tension album photoshoot, by Haris Nukem. Featuring a medium close-up of Kylie, throwing her head back with her eyes closed.
Kylie Minogue - Tension | Kylie Minogue/Darenote

Tension isn’t a perfect album. It’s not even a particularly great one. But I didn’t expect it to be given how I’ve always felt about Kylie’s albums. But for all of its faults, it is well produced and Kylie fully commits to each song. And whilst not every song works as well as I think they easily had the potential to; Kylie and her trusted collaborator Biff Stannard have a more than sound understanding of Kylie’s sound, purely based on the songs which do work. And far more works on Tension than I feel worked on Disco, Golden and Kiss Me Once.

The fact that Kylie is 35 years into her career and still able to deliver songs as good as what we get here without having to completely change her sound to fit in with what ‘the kids’ are doing is remarkable. Kylie has built herself a world and a framework which can exist in any time at any point in music, which really is something amazing given how her career started and that most probably thought she wouldn’t last a decade, let alone three. Kylie has a stronger sense of her brand and self than I think she’s ever been given credit. And even with Kylie getting it a little wrong on Tension, she still manages to deliver an album which bests those who try so hard to get it right.

Tension was not far off the target, which is honestly more frustrating than an album which is bad, because I’m like ‘Bitch. You were SO close’. But Kylie still managed to put out an album with songs which can easily sit alongside her classics and become favourites amongst fans old and new.

∎ Padam Padam
∎ One More Time
∎ Hold On to Now 🏆
∎ Tension
∎ Vegas High