Much has been made of the benefits and short-sightedness behind our infatuation with the ‘80s. In the last ten years television and film have become wrought with projects that can’t help but twist their references back and forth until it’s painfully obvious. Stranger Things, Halt and Catch Fire, Ghostbusters, and even Star Wars have all been either greenlit or popularised partly because of our obsession with the 1980s. Maybe it should be expected, after all those who were either born or came of age in the 1980s have become the bosses and head writers greenlighting and producing their nostalgia in 2020.
What may prove even more egregious but certainly more influential, is a similar influx in popular music. Beyond the evolution of Bruno Mars into an everything for everybody retro pop amalgam, and the evolution of The Weeknd into a similarly ‘80s tinged version of himself earlier this year, beyond PC Music and vaporwave and beyond Tik Tok and the last two awful Beck albums, there is the return of synthesizers and the chicken scratch guitar.
Ever since Daft Punk won album of the year at the 2014 Grammys, that brand of disco and new wave mingling has become synonymous with modern dance music. For most musicians, this nostalgia and scene chasing remains surface level, pulling its appeal from the reminder of something great instead of creating the impression itself in any new or useful way. But with many artists, The Weeknd included, this nostalgia tour has become a way of exploring the strength of their sound in a different commercially viable direction.
Kylie Auldist is one of those artists as well. As part of the Melbourne funk and soul scene since the early ‘90s, she has spent time with The Bamboos and Cookin’ On 3 Burners and since 2008, has had a solo career of her own. Much of that career has been crafting the kind of soft-eyed funk that one might expect from those projects, but as time has gone on, Auldist has changed her tune. Whether it be the cultural movement towards the past or a revival in the music that Auldist grew up with, 2016’s Family Tree was dominated by a very particular kind of disco revival, one that stood in contrast to the work she had become known for, but breathed new life into Auldist and gave her her strongest record up to that point.
Auldist’s follow-up is her fifth album, This Is What Happiness Looks Like. Similar in style and tone to Family Tree, it cements this pivot in her career as more than a one-off experiment, and more importantly improves on the formula. When the album opens with what might be Auldist’s most accomplished song yet, “Everythink”, the propulsion is evident immediately. Utilising some nice buried harmonies and a bright and shimmering city pop chorus, the production finally takes centre stage, highlighting Auldist, while giving her a substantive structure to tinker with. Like a lot of the songs here, Auldist spends a lot of time modifying and multiplying her vocals to completely take over the mix. On “Everythink” and “I Get It” the effect is substantial and elevating, making the case for Auldist as a solo performer and selling her personality.
But elsewhere that effect comes off as superfluous. On “Stay in Front”, a great track that features a big chorus and some effective overdubbed harmonies, once Auldist gets to the outro, her ad-libbing begins to take away from the strength of what she’s worked her way up to. That’s really only a minor concern, because for the most part her vocal inflections, even if a little overbearing, usually come across as charming – the result of a studio recording restraining a live performer, instead of anything purposeful.
Auldist’s vocals along with her production in realty do a lot of the heavy lifting. Whenever a lyric is too hackneyed or disingenuous for most performers to deliver affably, Auldist either wins over the listener with her stellar studio musicians like on “Just Show Me” or sings with enough charisma and swagger that it sounds tongue-in-cheek like on the Alex Cameron-esque “All Mine”. Simply put, if Auldist proves one thing on This is What Happiness Looks Like it’s that a great singer can will just about anything into falling into line if the environment is right.
The strongest tracks here maintain that charisma without losing their inherent structure. The album is so well built that an extremely showy singer would glide over the production and drown out the subtleties. Auldist knows better, her live career has given her a seasoned restraint as on “Just Show Me” and “LYB (Love You Better)”, where she lets the stuttering guitars and driving pulse carry her voice, instead of the other way around.
Kylie Auldist is a talented singer, someone who can hold her own on a number one single and remain a sought-after session musician even after 30 years in the business. While This Is What Happiness Looks Like pushes the singer further into her newfound sound, unlike most musicians, it feels less like a conscious cash-in and more like the music she should have been making all along.