Kesha’s “Rainbow” was lauded as a major reset for her career. It was a maturation from the edgier party music to a more folksy sound built on empowering themes. The album received major praise and earned her first Grammy nominations. It seemed like this was the beginning of a new path forward for the artist as she entered her thirties.
Her new album, “High Road,” does not follow that path. The singer’s fourth album is a chaotic reckoning of the two sides of Kesha’s catalog: the care-free party girl and the survivor. These sides clash heads from track to track and very frequently within a single track.
An example of this is the title track, “High Road.” The song opens with a soaring chorus about taking the high road and not losing sleep over the a—holes that won’t stop talking about her. The post-chorus is a rising melismatic earworm that quickly hard cuts into a high school cheer-esque verse. It’s disorienting at first, but it works to a certain degree.
The song’s outro throws the listener for a loop again with a phantom hype man commanding you to put your hands up and down. At first, it feels like it is building to the next track, but then the following track reveals itself to be a tame ballad. “High Road” is a strong song, but it ultimately fights so hard with itself that you take away more from the production than anything Kesha says.
On “My Own Dance,” Kesha complains, “’So, the internet called and it wants you back / But could you kinda rap and not be so sad?’ F–k it / What’s a girl to do? What’s a girl to do?” The chorus implies that she will no longer bow to the requests of others, yet she spends a large portion of the album — and even this song — kind of rapping and ignoring sadness. You’re left to wonder whether she actually enjoys these songs or if we have collectively forced her to cave to our will creatively.
There are a handful of songs that show promise and prove that Kesha from “Rainbow” has some control. “Resentment” and “Father Daughter Dance” are the most emotional and raw tracks on the album and seem like logical sequels to “Praying.” The former features Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Sturgill Simpson and Wrabel. It is a calm examination of refuse to find it within yourself to forgive someone who has deeply hurt you. It is a beautiful track.
Obviously, we all contain multitudes and an artist cannot be boiled down to a single archetype. But pulling two distinct parts of yourself into one body of work is a difficult feat. It has to be a well-orchestrated collection with the perfect ordering of the songs.
And the order of the tracks is largely where “High Road” stumbles. It bounces back and forth between escapism and sentimentalism. It could easily be reordered into a two-part album focusing on each, and it is likely that this may have made a more impactful body of work.
Still, there are some great tracks on this album that could carry “High Road” to a more favorable legacy in the Kesha catalog. These songs do a much slicker job of combining the two versions of her music.
Most obviously is “Kinky,” which a little jokingly has a feature credit for Ke-dollar sign-ha. Honestly, this track feels more like a full return of the 2010 party queen. It has the wobbly bass and the shiny synths backing lyrics about getting freaky with strangers. But it has the cleaner and stronger vocal stylings of her sans symbol counterpart. “Kinky” is sure to be a strong contender for the dance floor for all of 2020 and, dare I say it, a very early summer song contender.
“Kinky” is the last of a trio of near-perfect tracks on the album. The preceding two are “Little Bit of Love” and “Birthday Suit.” “Little Bit of Love” is a bombastic last plea to fix a failing relationship, co-written by Nate Reuss — formerly of the band fun. “Birthday Suit” is a 8-bit infected pop earworm that is about exactly what it sounds like. “Cowboy Blues” is another standout track on the album. It is the most stripped-back production on the album and the best storytelling.
“High Road” is an interesting body of work to take in at the beginning of the decade. With the prominence of streaming deconstructing and reforming the meaning of the album as a body of work, “High Road” confronts the idea of consistency and cohesion.