Musicology: Revisiting Impossible Princess on its 21st Birthday

We’re gathered here today to pay tribute to an Australian classic. On October 22 Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess turned 21 years old. Although a popular album that spawned the moderately successful singles ‘Some Kind of Bliss’, ‘Did it Again’ and ‘Breathe’, Impossible Princess is an anomaly within Minogue’s catalogue; a rare moment of daring, concentration and inspiration mixed with her usual determination to appeal to the pop charts.

Although it touched on indie rock, country, trip hop, drum and bass and straight out pop, the album, her sixth, was the most focused that Minogue had released up to that point. Her lyrics and vocals had a newfound depth and confidence, and for the first time on her own music she was credited as a co-producer and instrumentalist, as well as a songwriter on ‘Too Far’ and ‘Say Hey’, and co-songwriter on every other track.

Though many critics, particularly in the UK, then and still her biggest market, derided her for ‘going indie’, this seems to have been largely due to the choice of singles, with the guitar-centric ‘Did It Again’ and ‘Some Kind of Bliss’, blinding both the media and fans to the largely dance-focused album. “I have to keep telling people that this isn’t an indie-guitar album. I’m not about to pick up a guitar and rock,” she complained to Music Week at the time.

Considering her status as a major artist in 1997, the reception was disappointing, and though it debuted at #4 on the Australian ARIA charts, it was her lowest selling album at that point and led to her being dropped by both her record label, Deconstruction Records, and distribution label Sony BMG. Things were not helped by the fact in Europe the release was delayed until March 1998, five months after Japan and Australia, and that, confusingly, it was renamed Kylie Minogue, the same title as her previous album, due to sensitivities surrounding the death of Princess Diana.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes you fall flat on your face, look at Impossible Princess – it didn’t exactly sell truckloads of albums,” reflected Minogue on experimentation during a 2012 interview with Digital Spy. However, 21 years later one can view Impossible Princess without the cultural stigmas of its day. Though clearly influenced by the various underground dance genres that were becoming mainstream, most obviously trip hop, drum and bass and techno, the songwriting and production represented a major leap forward for Minogue. Lyrically, vocally, and even visually, thanks to the collaborative input from her then-partner, French photographer Stéphane Sednaoui, it seemed as if this was the first time that we were really hearing and seeing Minogue for who she was, and who she wanted to be. For all its pop-charting ambition, the album presented itself as a statement from an artist who was — seven months shy of her 30th birthday — maturing into her artistic prime.

Minogue had managed to shift her image from the smiley and G-rated ‘girl-next-door’ of the 1980s to a more adult and sexualised image with 1994’s Kylie Minogue, and even yield a hit with her Nick Cave duet on the brooding 1995 single ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, but the artistic leap forward that Impossible Princess represented seemed to ask for more credibility than mainstream audiences and critics were willing to lend her at the time. It’s telling not only that she never returned to the musical and visual influences of this period, but also that with her next album, 2000’s Light Years, she chose to up the levels of sexuality in her image and create much less challenging music. That record was a huge hit and she never looked back.

These things are easier to see with a historical perspective so its curious that Impossible Princess still rarely appears on lists of great Australian albums, although 2001’s Fever made #86 on Triple J’s recent Top 100 Australian Albums of All Time list (which, by the way, has no female-led acts until Sarah Blasko at #30) and the same album makes #108 in John O’Donnell, Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson’s 2010 book The 100 Best Australian Albums (with Blasko first again at #19).

There’s no doubting the quality of Crowded House’s work, but is the patchy and over-produced Woodface really that much better than this? Is Frogstomp? I put it forward to you that on its 21st birthday Impossible Princess deserves a serious reappraisal.

Originally published in Mixdown Magazine.

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