Kesha | High Road | (RCA / Kemosabe)
3.5 out of 5
“You’re the party girl. You’re the tragedy.”
Kesha Rose Sebert punches her incisors with a ravenous appetite. That line, pulled from the pleasure-seeking “My Own Dance,” confronts the striking dichotomy of her very public persona over the last 11 years. She once woke up just like P. Diddy and brushed her teeth with a bottle of Jack. She partied hard and rocked even harder. Behind closed doors, she was a tragic pop star – a true savant turned sexual assault survivor. And it took everything she had to escape.
2017’s Rainbow is tethered to context, both personal and sociopolitical, a 14-song arch of misery, redemption, loneliness, and eventually peace. The songs were pointed, celebratory, angsty, and very weird – irrefutable evidence that Kesha had always been the driving creative force in her music.
On her fourth studio album, High Road, Kesha raises literal hell – and shakes her tail feathers while doing it. She bounces around from her usual kitschy strangeness, as you’ll find with the Nintendo wonderland “Birthday Suit” and the campy, lace-fringed vaudeville act “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To),” to searing emotional turmoil – “Father Daughter Dance” is a crushing vocal showcase that no one could have expected. Each stylistic swerve is likely to give the listener whiplash, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, Kesha has never adhered to expectation.
With “Cowboy Blues,” she gathers her Animals around the crackling campfire for a bluesy, heart-torn ode of western balladry, feeling more Taylor Swiftian than a Dolly setpiece. “Do you ever lie in bed with your three cats / And get obsessed with some boy / You met one time three years ago in Nashville / And you can’t remember his last name / I think…,” her voice trails off into a wistful sigh.
High Road electrifies from the inside out. Kesha’s still proudly whiskey-swilling, but she’s more composed even in her messier moments. She’s not the man-eating cannibal of yore, yet her fangs glisten just the same. The album doesn’t always stick the landing, often agonizingly predictable, but when it does – “Honey” is fiercely retro, an insatiable ‘90s R&B jam – she brings the house down. Rainbow shows up in muted pastels, creamy and light (see: “Shadow,” “Chasing Thunder”), and it’s quite evident her trauma just won’t let her go.
Where Rainbow was vital and cathartic and necessary for her healing, High Road utilizes similar emotional punches as jumping off points. “Resentment” – an unexpected collaboration with Americana star Sturgill Simpson, Wrabel, and Beach Boys’ musician/songwriter Brian Wilson – burns with classic country/folk yearning, and it might be high time for her own full-on country record. Later, “BFF,” featuring Wrabel, her partner-in-crime who largely co-wrote the record, pops and fizzes with refreshing warmth. “When you got a best friend, you can be yourself,” their voices collect into a sparkling wave. Kesha is happier these days than she has been in a very long time, and all 15 tracks sprout from a place of hope.
High Road is fun, frilly, and fanciful – and Kesha has more than earned this moment. It suits her.
Photo Credit: Dana Trippe