Kimbra’s Shining Moment: A Review of “The Golden Echo”
Anyone who first discovered Kimbra in Gotye’s 2011 smash hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” and went to find out more about the singer from New Zealand were probably surprised by her solo work. Depending on the listener’s expectations, he or she would likely have been either put off by the quirky, nontraditional musical techniques or enamored by her creativity and obviously massive skill in songwriting and production. What we have all come to realize about Kimbra, first from her 2011 debut solo album Vows and now with The Golden Echo, is that aside from having immense vocal abilities, she consistently maintains her originality and avoids clichés that have sterilized mainstream pop music in recent years.
Even in her brief guest spot in Gotye’s hit, it was clear that Kimbra was exhibiting a certain level of restraint. While Gotye appeared entirely comfortable portraying a controlled level of emotion, Kimbra seemed ready to burst by the end of the track. With The Golden Echo, her ideas are let loose and allowed to breath without limitation. One gets the feeling that the album is only a sliver of her creative output and that she may be sitting on much more material, which will hopefully be released in the future.
The Golden Echo feels grandiose both in its runtime and sonic depth. There are 12 tracks (not including three bonus tracks on the deluxe version) and no filler material. With every entry, Kimbra shows purpose, care, and devotion to her work. One cannot help but marvel simply at the amount of detail and effort that have gone into crafting each song. The instrumentation on the album employs a blend of organic instruments with digital programming in a way that gives the music a human pulse with a heavy backbone of synthetic power.
The long list of guest artists on The Golden Echo adds to the sense of scale of the work. Kimbra works with the likes of bass virtuoso Thundercat, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, vocal powerhouse Bilal, string arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Michael Jackson collaborator John “JR” Robinson, guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez of The Mars Volta (on the bonus track “Slum Love”), and producer Rich Costey (Foster the People, Interpol, and Muse), among many others. Kimbra is able to effortlessly integrate all of these different voices and energies into her work while maintaining her signature sound on every note.
Every track on The Golden Echo has its own personality and in all, we get a profound view of the personal and musical worlds of Kimbra. While the more mainstream fans might be drawn to tracks like the nostalgic “90s Music” or the upbeat disco jaunt “Miracle,” there is a five-track run toward the latter part of the album that is musically diverse and dynamic, effectively portraying Kimbra’s eclectic, soulful style.
“Madhouse,” with Thundercat’s fluttering bass line, is a musical ode to Prince and a lyrical look into the madness of human nature and existence. “Everlovin’ Ya” is perhaps the most musically dense and otherworldly track on the album. The pulsing production and Bilal’s raw vocals and overdubbing create a hauntingly beautiful song that concludes with 30 seconds of Atwood-Ferguson’s string tremolos that drive home the poignant mood and complex harmony. “As You Are” is a heartfelt ballad that showcases Kimbra’s elastic vocal skills and harmonizing prowess. The occasional vocal effects here almost go unnoticed but probably should have been left out of this intimate concoction of piano and strings. In a turn to the ethereal, the slow burner “Love in High Places” highlights Kimbra’s celestial sonic concepts and production, along with a strong dose of Thundercat’s viciously heavy, syncopated bass in the chorus. Finally, in what could maybe be considered the centerpiece of the album, “Nobody But You” is a compositionally intricate song, with its accessible verses and chorus and spacey bridge. The track seems to embody what Kimbra’s sound is about: catchy hooks, danceable grooves, all underscored by intensely elaborate and sophisticated ideas and production.
One’s reaction to The Golden Echo will undoubtedly be partly determined by that person’s preconceived expectations and desires. Those expecting more mainstream, radio-friendly hits like her work with Gotye might be dumbfounded and disappointed by the complicated music on the album and lack of cohesive, succinct pop songs from the tried and true cookie cutter formula. What is abundantly clear here is that Kimbra could create those types of songs if she chose to go that route. She did not. It’s as if she wrote songs to reel in audiences, as pop songs do, but then just kept going, taking her music in fascinatingly unpredictable directions. If listeners are able to receive The Golden Echo with an open mind and appreciate the masterful musicianship and love that went into its creation, the album will pay dividends for years to come.