Love it or hate it — it’s one of those — Gotye’s mega-hit “Somebody That I Used To Know” dodged a lawsuit from The Police’s estate thanks in part to Kimbra’s striking guest verse. Throughout the single’s healthy chart tenure, the New Zealand singer supplied an elastic, modern counterweight to Gotye’s retro-familiar delivery. She captured a pair of Grammy wins with the song, all while inviting radio listeners into her own record, 2011’s Vows, a swinging, soulful hour of cabaret jazz damp with pop shine. The auspicious “Somebody” slot led Kimbra’s album up the charts in multiple countries alongside Gotye’s Making Mirrors. Now, her follow-up breaks out of the debut’s mold in all directions; The Golden Echo is a bold and sprawling effort that confirms Kimbra’s status as one of pop’s most flexible chameleons.
If Vows was an attempt to score cred in both pop and adult contemporary spheres with a clean, artful whole, then Echo veers in the opposite direction. It’s a volatile ride through pop history’s sweet spots, from Prince to Madonna to Timbaland to St. Vincent. Kimbra tries it all, and while the ride is often exhilarating, prioritizing breadth over depth lends the album a discordant, often jarring feel. Just a glance at the album’s guest appearances shows how far Kimbra dares to stretch her boundaries. Muse’s Matt Bellamy shows up early in the roll call, while Omar Rodriguez-Lopez adds muscle to the swinging “Carolina”. Thundercat and John Legend hang out, too, for good measure.
The album’s most confounding track is “90s Music”, a pseudo-hip-hop ramble that shivers under Iggy Azalea’s shadow. With its sing-spoken vocals and blurred half-hook, it’s no “Fancy”, but it also seems to have artier aims than being just another summer hit. The single piles genre after genre into a nervous pastiche, a messy chimera of styles that are each chimeras to begin with: juke, vaporwave, footwork. It’s almost weird enough to work, but then Kimbra forces in lines like “teens tearin’ up the streets,” as if the song had power beyond its spectacle as a cultural ouroboros. By the third time the title is repeated like an FM station identifier, the Frankenstein’s monster starts to come unstitched.
Elsewhere on the record — which, like its predecessor, clocks in at an hour — Kimbra hits genre notes so faithfully that the Internet as a specter almost melts away. Right down to the chiming strings and vocal overdubs, “Miracle” is vintage disco so pristine it’d make Daft Punk blush behind their robot masks. It’s a polished performance, but it sits dead in a tracklist full of mutants. The Golden Echo gets most interesting when it disobeys and disorients the culture it samples.
“Goldmine”, the single with the strongest hook, hits the right balance of elegance and rebellion, weaving Kimbra’s elastic vocals into Game Boy burbles and West Coast hip-hop flourishes. Hard, flat synths in the mix evoke chiptune, a corner of the music world that feels far removed from the acoustic piano and strings that adorned Vows. “Carolina” also swirls with markers of high and low music — orchestra drums against Auto-Tune — and finds rich tension between the two.
For most of its length, The Golden Echo is so jam-packed that the songs where Kimbra tones down the decor and lets her lyrics ring become some of the most interesting. “I want to feel something sacred away from your flashing lights,” she sings on “As You Are”, as if the vacancy is a relief even to her. Seven-minute closer “Waltz Me to the Grave” plays out like a Vows track with an itchy, morbid twist. It can’t settle on a beat or a palette, it seems; Kimbra’s fractured voice just barely webs the whole thing together. But it moves through anyway with its zombie mob of mismatched instruments, its melodic gymnastics, and its wry bite. It moves into a vision of death only Kimbra could conjure.
Essential Tracks: “Goldmine”, “Carolina”, and “As You Are”