How does Kesha follow up Rainbow? It’s a question that has to be asked, not just because that album was a masterpiece, but because of what Rainbow represents for Kesha as an artist. Not only is it an album that allowed Kesha to pursue new musical directions, it’s a work that is heavily influenced by her road to recovering from the abuse she suffered at the hands of Dr. Luke. That’s not to say that Rainbow was all doom and gloom; after all, it too had moments of fun and levity. But it’s also an album that saw Kesha mature as an artist, something that few people thought possible. So, the question remains, how does Kesha follow up a career-defining, therapeutic work of art that saw her emerge as a different woman?
High Road, Kesha’s 4th studio album, does something interesting by exploring Kesha’s head space, just as she’d done on Rainbow. In this case, though, her emotional journey isn’t one of recovering, but one of finding joy. It isn’t a direct overarching theme for the album, but many of the songs do encompass a space of learning to have fun again, trying to go on with life. By and large, High Road’s musical and thematic approach works, though there are moments where having fun feels almost like a step back towards the music of old rather than continuing to pursue artistic evolution. Stagnation isn’t a negative in and of itself, however. There are several fun songs such as “Birthday Suit” and “Kinky”, whose lyrical hedonism and EDM sound matches the likes of “Tik Tok” and “Your Love is My Drug” from Kesha’s debut album. Other times however, such as on album opener “Tonight”, I find myself feeling cold to the work on display.
In terms of mission statements, “Tonight” works well in delivering the vibe that dominates much of the album and it’s a memorable track thanks to its soaring melody in the chorus. My qualms with the song stem not from a lack of quality on Kesha’s part, but from my general distaste for rap and hip-hop that dominate the verses, something that I can’t help. It’s a similar problem I have with the second track “My Own Dance” though given the amount of time I’ve had to become acquainted with the song, I’ve found myself slowly growing towards it. It’s with the third track, and lead-off single “Raising Hell” where High Road starts building momentum. “Raising Hell” strikes the perfect musical and lyrical balance between the Kesha of 2009 and the Kesha of 2017 with its mixture of playfulness and dramatic introspection as evidenced by lines like “we can always find the trouble, we don’t need no help” and “I don’t wanna go to Heaven without raising Hell”. It delivers a sense of joy that is sustained for much of the album; a sense of joy that’s infectious enough for me to ignore many of my musical biases. I can’t help smiling at the likes of the chiptune-laden “Birthday Suit”, the circus romp of “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” and the ode to friendship that is “BFF”. “BFF” in particular succeeds much in the same way “Raising Hell” does with its balance of meditative introspection and positivity, a feat that is also prevalent on the song “Cowboy Blues”. The lyrics might not be the deepest, but they work well for the songs they go with.
If there’s any issue to be had with the work that Kesha has set before the listener, one need only look at the occasional forays into straight up balladry. I love Kesha’s ballads. The ballads are where she really shines as a vocalist and lyricist, yet they also highlight the artistic dissonance that plagues this album. Let me be clear, this isn’t a matter of disparate musical elements colliding with each other. After all, Kesha’s previous album Rainbow juggled its differing musical genres exceptionally. Kesha does an equally solid job of balancing various musical ideas on High Road. It’s with the mood of the pieces, however, that things feel disjointed. A third of these songs feel like a continuation of the emotional cleansing that Kesha was going through on Rainbow; another third feels like the brash, bratty Kesha of old; the last third feels like a mixture of the two. Despite my own preferences, I’m not saying any one identity is superior to the other, but this balancing act of moods does make for a disjointed listen in places. To be fair, Rainbow also had moments of fun and levity, but those moments felt like they came from a singular identity and artistic vision, rather than a disjointed amalgamation of two different artists. This lack of a singular identity seems to be highlighted by another problem that is present on High Road, song sequencing. High Road bunches most of its ballads on the second half of the album, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it does seem to accentuate the artistic dissonance that plagues the album. The ballads very much feel as though they come from a more mature headspace than the upbeat songs on the album. While a deliberate attempt to split the album in half between the Kesha of old and the new Kesha could make for an interesting statement of evolution on Kesha’s part, what we get instead is a regular record that tries to balance the mood for the first half of the album before giving up and haphazardly tossing three ballads at the end of the record. If someone were to rearrange the order of the songs on High Road, there’s a very good chance that the artistic dissonance on display would have been less pronounced and I might not have had as large of a problem with the ballads on this album.
Overall, Kesha’s High Road is a welcome return for the artist, one that largely finds a happy middle ground between evolution and playing things safe. It may not be the album everyone wanted, but it is one that has enough moments to please a large portion of listeners. Here’s hoping Kesha’s doing well and we get more music from her soon.