New Zealander Kimbra Johnson is a surreal pop juxtapositionist—a mercurial oddball influenced equally by soul singer Minnie Ripperton and prog-metal extremists Meshuggah. Her second LP, The Golden Echo (which follows her breakout guest spot on Gotye’s elastic breakup ballad “Somebody That I Used to Know”) showcases the madness of her restlessly creative brain. From frizzy, Prince-aping funk to chirpy roller-disco to math-rock dissonance, no style or texture is off-limits—it’s the album’s biggest charm and also its unavoidable drawback: Kimbra spends so much time playing dress-up, it’s often hard to tell what she really looks like.
“I would get to that extent where I’d done so much experimentation with a song I was crashing Pro Tools [digital audio workstation] in the studio,” Johnson told the New Zealand Herald in a recent profile, crediting producer extraordinaire Rich Costey for reining in the wildest excesses. “I’m serious, over 300, 400 tracks on a Pro Tools session.”
That overstuffed approach to songcraft is on display immediately with opener “Teen Heat,” an electro-pop showstopper that builds to an anthemic R&B chorus. But here—and elsewhere on the LP’s silky first side—the maximalist headphone trickery goes hand-in-hand with Kimbra’s stylistic shifts: Lead single “90’s Music” is a lyrical tribute to Johnson’s childhood pop heroes (like TLC and Mary J. Blige), but the groove is anything but nostalgic, blending Janelle Monae soul with the fractured art-rock of Dirty Projectors; “Carolina” flips a hummable, Motown-styled rhythm section on its head, with choral chorus harmonies that coil into the ether like cartoon angels.
“Goldmine,” the album’s true centerpiece, twists chain-gang blues into a spooky dance-floor banger, approximating a Timbaland beat down to the sampled vocal grunts. The production is superior on these cuts, but so are the hooks—crucially, that nimble voice never is engulfed by the Pro Tools zaniness. It’s fun listening to Kimbra as she teeters that line, seeing how many left-field ideas she can cram into a concise pop tune.
But fatigue sets in on the LP’s second half, as she eases off the melodic gas pedal, with several tracks stretching out well over five minutes. The aimless “Rescue Him” offers a seductive synth-bass atmosphere, but the endless vocal affectations grow distracting as the track winds on; “Be Everlovin’ Ya” is so consumed with its offbeat funkiness and cartoonish voices that it feels like more a pastiche than a real song. Meanwhile, “Waltz Me to the Grave” ends the album with seven minutes of atmospheric funk doodling, fading out with two minutes of tacked-on synth texture.
In today’s generic popverse, we need artists like Kimbra: outsiders who are willing to collaborate with Van Dyke Parks and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Flying Lotus, who are willing to crash a Pro Tools session—all in the name of trying somewhere new. At its worst, The Golden Echo is admirably faceless, exhausting in its eager quest to be everything to everyone at once. At its best, it’s subversive pop brilliance.