With her last studio album Rainbow, Kesha had a lot to express. Or, in her words, she had “too many people left to prove wrong.” The album, which was her first studio release in nearly five years, came after a highly publicized legal battle with her former producer Dr. Luke, whom she sued for physical, emotional, and sexual abuse (he, in turn, sued for defamation and breach of contract). Before this monumental turning point in both her professional and personal lives, the Kesha we knew was a bit different: Ke$ha, who had made her name on party anthems and electro-dance pop hits in the early 2010s.
While Ke$ha was loveable and fun to both watch and listen to, her heavily auto-tuned hits constantly called her performance ability into question as well as her inability to be seen as anything but a wild, fun-loving party girl. We might have been having fun jamming along to songs like “Your Love is My Drug” and “Die Young,” but by 2014, the only person who didn’t seem to be having any fun was Kesha. That year, she removed the dollar sign from her name—explaining it as a way of taking back her power—and filed her lawsuits against Dr. Luke in both California and New York. That wasn’t the only thing she had gone through, either: prior to the legal battle, she had been in a treatment centre for an eating disorder and emotional issues, which further prompted her desire for a personal and artistic reinvention.
By the time Rainbow would arrive in 2017, it introduced us to the woman behind the dollar sign: the album not only sees Kesha reclaiming her power and her voice in more ways than one, but it finally proved to us that she is capable of more than just electro-dance pop. The singer described her previous albums as having “no balance,” stating in a New York Magazine profile in 2016 that she is a “real person having a complete human experience” and that she wanted her future music to represent that. “To this day, I’ve never released a single that’s a true ballad, and I feel like those are the songs that balance out the perception of you, because you can be a fun girl,” she said. “You can go and have a crazy night out, but you also, as a human being, have vulnerable emotions. You have love.”
With her new studio album High Road, however, Kesha sounds like she has been chomping at the bit to see her darkness and drama in the rear-view mirror. From the moment its lead single “Raising Hell” dropped last October, the record appeared to be a vow to return to the fun-loving dance-pop Kesha (who wasn’t completely gone on Rainbow, but rather masked by glam rock and country pop influences). “Tonight’s the best night of our lives / Can you feel it?” she proclaims on High Road’s opening track. “We got it all, if we’re alive / We’re still breathing, I’m still breathing.” From its very first moments, the album appears to be everything that it felt like it was going to be: a breath of fresh air after the storm. This sentiment is especially amplified by some empowering, radical lyrics in the first few songs that follow.
On “My Own Dance,” she is both mocking and embracing her public narrative: “So, the internet called and it wants you back / But could you kinda rap and not be so sad? / What’s a girl to do? Is this what you want? Fuck you.” On both “High Road” and “Shadow,” she is rejecting the negativity of said public narrative and continuing to drive in her own lane: “And I love singing ‘fuck’ in all my songs / ‘Cause the only people who got time to get offended / Are the ones who’ve probably never gotten off.” And on “Raising Hell,” undoubtedly the album’s strongest song, she is embracing her contradictions and messiness and reminds us that she, let alone everyone else, can be trying her best and still be blessed. “All of these things used to give me so much anxiety, and now I’m just at a point where I can sit back, smoke a little weed, and have a laugh and not be so invested in all this shit that people talk,” Kesha told Apple Music.
Unfortunately, High Road’s empowering themes of embracing our messiness, rejecting negativity, and defusing anxiety seem to end soon thereafter, at least for the listener. You can definitely tell that Kesha—the self-described “cheesy bitch who loves pop music”—had a blast writing this album by rejecting all labels and making whatever she felt like making, but it sounds as though she might have lost herself while doing it. If Rainbow had a lot to live up to following her absence from the pop music scene as well as her high profile lawsuit against her ex-producer, a follow-up record called High Road felt as though it might follow in the footsteps of Rainbow by charging forward on said high road. But those empowering sentiments are largely lost to Kesha’s attempt at embracing her own messy creativity. That creativity has been a lot of fun in the past, but on High Road it’s a bit tedious and annoying, let alone frustrating.
Kesha made frequent use of collaborations with fellow singer/songwriter and best friend, as we learn on “BFF,” Wrabel—which does result in some other High Road highlights such as “Resentment” (featuring guest vocals from Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson, and Wrabel), “Little Bit of Love,” and “Father Daughter Dance.” She goes so far as to credit her former persona, Ke$ha, as a featured artist on “Kinky,” which reads as a testament to her return to her party girl, dance-pop roots. But as much as Kesha proved she could navigate a multitude of different genres on Rainbow, it sounds as though she fails to co-exist with her former self for more than a few new tracks. As a result, the Kesha from Rainbow is scarcely heard on High Road, but the Ke$ha from Animal and Warrior aren’t really here, either. If Rainbow helped rebirth Kesha as an artist, High Road feels more like a placeholder, in that she felt like making a complete mess of an album solely for the enjoyment it brings her, which is valid. But since we know what Kesha is capable of having listened to Rainbow, our standards for her are so much higher now. And High Road doesn’t exactly live up.
Jeffrey’s favorites from High Road: “Tonight,” “My Own Dance,” “Raising Hell,” “High Road,” “Shadow,” “Resentment,” “Little Bit of Love,” “BFF,” and “Father Daughter Dance”