Kesha's ‘High Road’ doesn’t imply weakness or purity

Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 5:15pm

NOSELL

Kemosabe Records/RCA Records

Kesha Sebert came off of her third EP, Rainbow, gently. The 2017 release was a work that Sebert had spent nearly five years writing and recording, all while engaged in a legal struggle with her record producer  — the now disgraced Dr. Luke — over sexual misconduct and emotional abuse. The album was finally released at just a time when the early-2010s sensual, bubblegum pop crowd was officially stepping back into the curtain, rescinding domination of the music industry to either newcomers or their few compatriots who had evolved enough to fit the day. On Rainbow, Kesha best engaged the latter action, pointedly changing her tone and style, though less out of necessity than some of her colleagues. Rainbow emerged as a soft-pop triumph, with the dial ratcheted toward a country ambiance and toward a raw, open vulnerability that somehow — party girls have emotions, too? — shocked critics. “I used to live in the darkness,” Kesha sings on the album’s eponymous track. “Dress in black, act so heartless. But now / I see the colors are everything.”

Cognizant of her fans and of the tonal shift she applied in 2017, then, Sebert branded her new EP, High Road, as a return to the wild, carefree strength of her first album. The lead single, “Raising Hell,” recalled the heavy production and bass of earlier albums. It re-rehearsed the “fuck it” attitude that framed Kesha for success in the first place. Kesha sampled champagne in magazine interviews and brought back her hair dye. In November, she said that it was the album where “Kesha got her balls back.”

On the first listen, too, it feels this way. She’s back, the album shouts. It’s ferocious. “I’m getting so drunk / Haven’t seen my boyfriend in a few months / Oh, don’t know if it’s weed or if it’s a skunk,” Kesha sings on “Tonight.” Even her voice, it seems, has returned to its low, brooding rap-growl so indicative of her early work. The electropop has dulled, but the relentless bass and rhythm typical of radio pop is as strong as ever. It’s dirty, ungovernable and most of all, fun.

The problem with Sebert’s assessment of the album — “Kesha got her balls back” — is that Kesha never lost them to begin with. Sure, Rainbow was a shift in genre, turning slowly to low-fi pop and guitar-laden tracks. But the vulnerability and authentic dialogue that Rainbow opened up — on emotional abuse, self-healing and forgiveness — were not symptoms of weakness. If anything, they were testaments to Kesha’s resilience. They exemplified her balls-to-the-wall gallantry that enabled her to face her abuser when the system left her behind, and what allowed her to, largely before music and politics were as wedded as they are today, speak out on contentious social issues. The notion that a definite dichotomy exists between the sex-positive, alcohol-glugging party girl and the forgiving, love-struck one that emerged in Sebert’s later career is asinine. The two are not mutually exclusive.

High Road, then, isn’t so much a back-tracking to before Rainbow as it is an amplifying of the strength and power Kesha embraced in that very album. 2017’s Rainbow, even with its earnest sound, was full of raunchy pop tracks (see “Boots” or “Hymn”). High Road clutches the successes of this era, both pop and country-pop, and works to intensify them both musically and lyrically. Glam pop electronics and heavy harmonies layer over the tracks. The lyrics, like on “Tonight,” get more explicitly sleazy.

The rich tracks on High Road aren’t consistent or predictable. For the most part, it’s difficult to say the album is cohesive. The first three songs open as a pure pop album. Sebert stomps over lyrics, curling around sensuous beats before opening up to explosive, electric choruses. But High Road takes a turn near its center, and an even more drastic one than the variation seen in Rainbow. Songs like “Cowboy Blues” and “Resentment” peel back nearly everything except for two guitars and layered, choral harmonies. It’s hardly country and much less so pop. It’s Kesha’s alternative, gospel-like middle ground. 

While the tracks aren’t bad (“Cowboy Blues,” in fact, shines as one of the more clever and genuine songs of the album), the backdrop of Sebert’s abrasive pop makes them feel clunky. It’s of great merit that Sebert stands by her genre and creative intuition, refusing to lock into the brash, Chainsmokers-esque instrumental chorus so many artists have fallen prey to. She’s blazing her own path. Still, the ingenuity comes at a sharp cost. It renders High Road irregular.

The album’s greatest downfall — despite its credit list of highbrow, well-awarded producers and writers — is its sloppiness. Bits like the TLC-reminiscent “Honey” and “Little Bit of Love” feel unfair to what Kesha has proven she can do. The tracks feel grossly manufactured and inauthentic. The lyrics are embarrassing (“I’m writing this on a yacht in the French Riviera / Delete my number bitch, sayonara”) and the choruses are careless, three-chord repetitions and filler “woah-ohs,” as if Kesha forgot what she was capable of. These songs feel placed to fill a quota. Sebert’s talent for tongue-in-cheek party anthems or provocative ballads, even if reduced to a short EP, will triumph over such fillers any day.

Irregularity and the occasional phoniness don’t make or break an album, though, and High Road’s better patches aren’t just better — they’re fantastic. The start of the album is the most exceptional. In just the way Sebert roars into the album on “Tonight,” it’s clear that this patch of pop is Kesha at her best. Over the next three tracks, she leaps over fresh-sounding glitter hits, each more distinct than the next. On “Tonight,” she’s got wine in her backpack and hasn’t seen her boyfriend in a month. On “My Own Dance,” she’s firing back at critics who tell her to “kinda rap and not be so sad.” “High Road,” falling just before the tonal shift, is perhaps the album’s best track. On it, Sebert maintains both her party-pop sound and her authentic style, but most importantly, her heart feels into it. It’s the accessible, clear-eyed optimism that is so familiar.  “I don’t know where I’ll end up / But I’m laughing, I ain’t losing no sleep,” Kesha sings. She slides effortlessly in and out of her growl-rap, blending her image but also spotlighting her talent for duplexity — to be both kind and reckless, both sleazy and caring. She’s taking the high road, but that doesn’t mean she’s sacrificing anything for it.

Kesha has the capacity for cross-genre greatness, licking up bubblegum pop hits, country-pop and late ’70s glam rock. She proved it on Rainbow, and proved it again on High Road. Still, there is a genius album, one more cohesive and careful than High Road, waiting to be presented. And we’ll be here when Kesha is ready to present it.