The celebrated pop star’s fourth album attempts a return to the carefree party pop that defined her early career.
Kesha is a vocal supporter of underdogs and outsiders; she stands up for LBGTQ rights, women’s rights, the environment, songwriters, and gun control in a time when all are being threatened. She sews every seam of her brand with inclusivity and empowerment (“keep glowing, ur a fuckin rainbow,” she tweeted to a fan who came out as transgender). After years embroiled in a legal battle with her former producer, Dr. Luke, whom she accused of physical abuse and sexual assault, Kesha transformed her pain into the country-rock reckoning Rainbow and an emotional 2018 Grammys performance supporting the #TimesUp movement. In her colorful universe, you are believed and accepted, doused in glitter and moral support, perpetually reminded that neither tragedy nor socio-economic status define you, and encouraged to be your baddest bitch self. It’s hard not to root for Kesha.
Yet very little of this determination, maturity, or depth comes through on her fourth album, High Road, which regresses from Rainbow’s clear-eyed courage to Animal-era party-pop. It’s a tough pivot after everything that’s gone down, and she recycles the same innocuous frameworks she wielded a decade ago: that getting high and sleeping around don’t make you a bad person, that women are multidimensional (“You’re the party girl/You’re the tragedy/But the funny thing is I’m fucking everything,” she sings). Triteness aside, it would’ve been relatively easy to get behind an album of unfettered Kesha revelry, but High Road feels strained, scattershot, and loaded with tension, like someone trying to portray freedom and free-spiritedness–even a recovered sense of identity–who isn’t quite there yet.
“My Own Dance,” effectively a “TiK ToK” sequel, is the album’s closest thing to a centerpiece and lays out the challenge she faced: “So the internet called and it wants you back/But could you kinda rap and not be so sad?” Kesha is correct that our demands are unfair, but then she goes and fulfills them, insisting that she’s conforming by choice (“Hey! I don’t do that dance! I only do my own dance!”). This puts the listener in a confusing position: Are we to feel guilty or celebrate? It might be less uncomfortable if it felt like she’d made peace with her decision, but the song is coated in indignation: “I feel like I’m nothing/Somedays I am everything/Caught up in my feelings/Bitch, shut up and sing.”
This sense of uncertainty permeates the album, making it feel distant and erratic. Kesha has always covered a range of moods and styles—deep confessionals, party bops, twangy folk songs, bits of goofy banter—but High Road dials this up to an almost frenetic state, yo-yoing between tear-jerking ballads, overwrought empowerment anthems, and head-scratching moments of ironic nonsense. For every bizarre one-off (the chiptune inspired “Birthday Suit,” the lascivious “Kinky,” or the oddly childlike “BFF”), there’s a frothy, generic pop anthem pulling her back to the middle: “Little Bit of Love,” co-written by Nate Ruess, feels entirely anonymous.
She seems determined not to let you get too close. Enveloping emotional moments are often interrupted by puzzling production choices and lyrical contradictions. “Raising Hell,” a spirited ode to celebrating and forgiving yourself, featuring Big Freedia, is deflated by an insufferable horn synth that blares like a Major Lazer song. “Shadow,” an immersive piano ballad that exhibits her empathy and sheer vocal strength, is punctuated by a sour, flippant interlude (“If you don’t like me you can suck my—”, she chants). Even the title track, which attempts to frame her reaction to trauma as considered and mature, is itself defensive and sarcastic, stumbling from escapism into stoned denial. This is what makes the album’s hard-partying premise so difficult to accept: It doesn’t feel like moving on, it feels like running away.
There’s no question Kesha is capable of assured, sincere truth-telling. “Resentment,” a stunning confessional featuring Brian Wilson and Sturgill Simpson, is so personal and emotionally generous that it actually feels healing, leaving you to marvel at how arresting her voice is when you can actually hear it. The lightly mystical “Cowboy Blues,” which mentions her three cats, therapist, and tarot card reader, feels relaxed and spontaneous, as if she’s writing it right in front of you. When it swells into an all-together-now dive bar singalong, lit up by whistling ooh-oohs and sha-la-las, you remember that Kesha is the rare songwriter who can funnel big, existential ideas like destiny and chance into the casual story of a night out in Nashville. These aren’t hell-raising, stadium-sized bangers about blacking out and acting up, but they are at least about her. As anyone who has wrestled with self-acceptance understands, often the most rebellious thing you can do is be your unvarnished self.
Buy: Rough Trade
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