We’re #2! – Kylie Minogue’s “Confide in Me”

“But in the name of understanding now, their problems should be shared.  Confide in me.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart.  Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

010] Kylie Minogue – Confide in Me

Reached #2: 4th September 1994

Weeks at #2: 1

Nobody had heard from Kylie Minogue in two years.  After the release of her 1992 Greatest Hits collection, Kylie split from long-time production and songwriting partners Stock-Aitkin-Waterman.  They had given the Australian former-soap star her music career, turning what was expected to be a flash-in-the-pan novelty by an actress who fluked her way into a record deal – her breakout performance at a benefit concert for beloved Australian football team Fitzroy Football Club with her fellow Neighbours cast singing “I Got You Babe” fast-tracked into a deal with Mushroom Records and then her mega-hit cover of “The Locomotion” – into a consistent hit parade throughout the late-80s.  She was primed for crossover success in the UK, Neighbours had become a ratings juggernaut as an import and her character’s relationship with Jason Donovan’s Scott Robinson eventually culminated in a wedding episode that logged almost 20 million viewers, but it definitely didn’t hurt none that she did so off the back of tracks like “I Should Be So Lucky” and “Better the Devil You Know.”

But Kylie was becoming restless and unfulfilled.  She was growing tired of singing empty high-energy bubblegum pop and, more importantly, tired of Stock-Aitkin-Waterman not letting her have a say in the music.  In the early days, she’d go along with what they wanted because she didn’t know what kind of musician she wanted to be yet.  By 1992, she was more confident of herself and knew that the songs she was singing weren’t up to snuff after the 1991 album Let’s Get to It flopped worldwide.  S-A-W, meanwhile, had fallen on hard times and become easy punching bags for the rest of the music industry.  Their formula for hitmaking craven, their sound dated and grating, their songs interchangeable, their flashes of genuine brilliance vanishing, their hits drying up and their artists being left behind in the previous decade.  Matt Aitkin had left the trio in 1991 citing that their records had started to sound the same even to him, and Kylie’s Let’s Get to It saw Matt Stock and Pete Waterman trying extremely badly to move with the times.  Overwrought adult contemporary ballads, Janet Jackson bites, embarrassing appropriations of New Jack Swing.  None of it worked, the songs weren’t there and the duo’s production suffocated any life there might have been through dated effects and shrill tones.  The chart-conquering partnership would officially dissolve in 1993, a year after Kylie left Waterman’s label.

During her time with S-A-W, Kylie had become entranced by club music.  Kylie had always made dance music, but the cheese and teeny-bop nature of S-A-W’s typical production and songwriting meant that cooler non-commercial clubs, the kind of clubs you think of when you envision “clubs,” pretty much turned their noses up at playing her songs.  But by the time she split with S-A-W, her music wasn’t all that far removed from the trendy downtempo club grooves of the time, so long as a savvy enough pair of hands could realise and tease out that fact.

Enter: Brothers in Rhythm.  Steve Anderson, Dave Seaman and Alan Bremner were a DJ collective making waves on the underground club scene who had scored an unlikely crossover hit in September of ‘91 with “Such a Good Feeling” when they were charged with remixing Kylie’s “Finer Feelings” for the single release and their efforts demonstrate a night-and-day effect between the then-modern sound of the pop-adjacent underground and S-A-W’s clumsy efforts to replicate it for themselves.  The album version aims for Soul II Soul but can’t help crowding the mix with blaring chorus vocals, tinny compressed drums that negate the groove, and crushing the space so every aspect of the track is forced to shout over each other in an effort to be heard.  The Brothers’ remix does not fundamentally change the song, structurally it is damn-near identical, but by opening up the track – mixing the chorus harmonies significantly deeper so as not to overpower Kylie, replacing the synthetic drums with a cleaner and punchier loop, dirtying up the bass burble to create a proper groove, and giving every element of the track room to breathe – they turn a missed opportunity into one of Kylie’s most underrated treasures.  (Seriously, I’ve listened to this thing at least 20 times during the course of writing today’s piece.  It slaps.)

“Finer Feelings” stalled out at #11 and only spent four weeks total in the Top 40, but it evidently galvanised Kylie because the Brothers in Rhythm were one of her first ports of call when putting together her fifth studio album, first away from S-A-W, and her first new music in two years (having otherwise released something every few months between 1987 and 1992).  Whilst still signed to Mushroom in her native Australia, Kylie chose to shirk all major labels in the UK and make her new home DeConstruction, a house music label then best-known for K-Klass, Bassheads, M People, and Felix whose groundbreaking “Don’t You Want Me” had gone to #6 in 1992 and launched the hardbag movement.  Such a move was unheard of at the time and was undeniably a statement of intent.  The last music anyone had heard from her was an utterly lifeless cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” done up in the signature S-A-W production style and which she sounded audibly disinterested and downright miserable on.  As later revealed in her 2002 biography Kylie Naked, upon signing with DeConstruction she had a meeting with the label that laid out her career as such: “We had two choices–to record pop songs that would sell, or to experiment, let me loose in a field and see what happens.”  Over a strenuous near-two-year recording process, she went with the latter.

“Confide in Me” was released on the 29th August 1994, almost exactly two years to the day after the release of the Greatest Hits album with that “Celebration” cover on it, as both the first single from her upcoming self-titled record and the opening song on its track list.  It is five minutes and fifty-two seconds long.  For almost the first minute of that runtime, there is no beat, no lyric; instead devoted to scene-setting orchestration by Will Malone akin to that of a film score.  It took until 2004’s greatest hits compilation Ultimate Kylie for the release of an officially-labelled “Radio Edit.”  It was the first proper collaboration that Kylie would have with the Brothers in Rhythm – although they had put in remixed work on the version of “Automatic Love” that would end up on the album, a hold-over from Kylie’s aborted work with Saint Ettienne and The Rapino Brothers at the production’s outset.  It is a statement record if there ever was one, designed to be a firm line in the sand dividing Kylie’s prior frothy teeny-bop career beforehand from her new mature reinvention.

With such reinventions, the pop music story typically goes (and would go for artists like Kylie in the future) that we are now supposed to be seeing the pop star’s true self, that they have thrown off the shackles of the suits and hit-men who got them through the door and “gave” them their careers and are finally free to present themselves as they really are.  “Confide in Me…” really doesn’t do that.  In fact, if anything, the song, both musically and lyrically, sees Kylie slide further than ever into playing a character.  The ornate Middle Eastern orchestration that provides the main hook and garnishes the rest of the song with a mysticism and opulence, right down to the sitar-like guitar that occupies the fringes of the verse, combines with trip hop drum loops and a subtle underlying stop-start bassline to craft a soundscape more befitting a James Bond movie than what pop radio at the time was playing.  (In fact, I’m shocked it took until Garbage did “The World is Not Enough” for a Bond theme composer to start blatantly cribbing notes from this.)

Lyrically, Kylie is a seductress, a deceptress, a stranger on the prowl looking for men to invest themselves emotionally in her but reticent to do the same herself.  Is she a trustworthy shoulder to lean on?  A sociopathic voyeur who gets off on touristing other people’s pain?  An empty vessel dream-girl for men to dump their problems on, or is that just who she wants you to think of her as in an effort to lower your guard?  It’s all intentionally vague and unsettling.  The music is undoubtedly a major component of that effect, but Kylie’s vocals play a vital part as well.  By her own admission, she had never sung like this before – breathy, seductive, studied and restrained, even hitting a series of piercing falsettos during the final chorus run as a firm-ass rebuke to anyone who criticised her supposed lack of vocal range and ability – and the effect is extraordinary.  The bridge where she breaks off into French pop-style innuendo-laden spoken word is surprisingly unsettling when it should theoretically be theatrical.

Of course, any student of pop history knows that you can’t talk about “Confide in Me” and the Kylie Minogue album without also bringing up Madonna’s 1990 hit single “Justify My Love” and later unconnected album Erotica, since Madonna comparisons have dogged Kylie throughout her entire career.  Not entirely unfounded, mind, since she has repeatedly gone on record as deeply respecting and admiring Madonna.  But the move to trip hop electronica beats paired with a more sexual lyricism and image after years of being pigeonholed as a teen mall-pop icon could be seen as shameless aping.  Yet, and this is crucial, “Confide in Me” is a finished song which immediately vaults it past Madonna’s abysmal demo-like “Justify.”  Less facetiously, there’s a genuine craft and spark of inspiration and risk to “Confide” that makes it stand out.  There’s a hypnosis in the combination of the drums and that Middle Eastern string section, Kylie’s voice is performative yet convincing, and the song keeps shifting and finding new variations on its theme at every turn without betraying what is, both comparatively to Kylie’s prior S-A-W works and the blaring compressed maximalism of even the sparest ballads of 1994’s radio, a rather restrained song.  If you are a fan of songwriting, this is just a banquet to examine in-depth, let me tell you.

So, why don’t I much love it?  Truth be told, it’s more of a personal preference thing than anything wrong with the song itself.  Partly, I’m turned off by the mystical Middle Eastern vibes which form the bedrock of the song since they feel vaguely touristy and reductive shorthand for the uneasy atmosphere the song wants to create; something that was very common in the late 90s and early 00s as, from pop music to movies to 3D platformers in videogames to hip hop beats, pop culture overdosed on such slightly queasy stereotyping.  Partly, it’s the fact that the song is very obviously aiming to be an overture statement record, one that plays more in the narrative of an artist’s history than something which can standalone sans context, and (as we’ll discuss in a few weeks) I’ve never much gone for those types of songs.  And partly, I just find the rest of Kylie Minogue to be better than this, both as individual songs and as necessary breaks into Serious Artiste mode.  “Surrender,” “Automatic Love,” “Falling,” even the obvious Old Kylie throwback “If I Was Your Lover” all do a better job at presenting a recontextualised smart-pop Kylie without feeling like they have to do so by trying so drastically hard.

Still, even if I don’t ride for it as hard as many Kylie fans and music critics do, I am capable of respecting motherfucking craft when I hear it and “Confide in Me” drips motherfucking craft out of every pore.  It’s a ballsy-as-hell leftfield move even when taking into account that the strands of this sort of music were showing themselves in Kylie’s previous records of the kind I can always respect.  And I can also appreciate how much of a vital foundation the single’s success provided for Kylie’s career resurgence.  “Confide” would pretty quickly drop down the chart after this debut week, the joys of releasing such a deliberately off-beat statement record, but it gave Kylie the cool image rehabilitation she needed with critics (and would still need since the notorious Street Fighter movie was only a few short months away) and it gave her time.  Time to fully find herself, time to become even more involved in the creative and writing process than she was on this album, time to synthesise her club muse with the demands of commercial pop radio without sacrificing either, time to reinvent herself multiple instances over and do what none of her former Stock-Aitkin-Waterman labelmates could: escape the 80s as a respected pop elder-stateswoman with a catalogue stuffed full of no-qualifiers-necessary bops.  Time to become the beloved icon that she is today.

Kylie Minogue will reappear multiple times throughout this column in many capacities.  When she does, she will have levelled up to making some of the best pop music of the decade.  For now, she’s on her way.

Bonus Beats: In 2015, whilst promoting third album Currents, Australian psychedelia band Tame Impala stopped by Triple J to perform a cover of “Confide in Me” for the station’s “Like a Version” feature.  It starts out extremely faithful and then proceeds to bug the fuck out with one of Kevin Parker’s trademark “confused yet unhinged” guitar solos.

[Tame Impala, as of this writing, have never cracked the UK Top 40.]

Bonus Bonus Beats: British synthpop duo Hurts provided a cover of “Confide in Me” for tabloid rag The Sun’s now-discontinued Biz Sessions in 2010, transforming it into something vaguely Pet Shop Boys and Timbaland-y.

[As a solo act, Hurts’ chart peak came in 2010 with a re-release of their debut single “Wonderful Life” at #21.  As featured artists, they actually scored a UK #1 single when they teamed up with Calvin Harris and Alesso on 2013’s “Under Control.”  That one is a 2.]

The #1: For the last time, Wet Wet Wet remained seated at the top of the chart with the apparently-deathless “Love is All Around.”  Their 15-week run would come to an end seven days later, just missing out on tying Bryan Adams for the all-time consecutive #1 run record, at the hands of Whigfield’s surprise smash “Saturday Night.”  Because I am tired of looking at that goddamn soul patch in the YouTube thumbnail every single week, and to send this song off right, here’s the bit from the start of Love, Actually where Bill Nighy’s washed-up singer Billy Mack is forced against his will to record a hokey Christmas version of the song.  “Love is All Around” is still a 2.

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Saturday.

Callie Petch, make them magnificent tonight.

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