Kesha Returns to Festive Form on ‘High Road’
When Kesha arrived on the scene with her 2010 debut “Animal,” singing about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack in her breakthrough single “Blah Blah Blah,” she zeroed in on an elusive space between bona fide pop fodder and hipster irony. Her songs were party anthems that set themselves apart by never taking themselves too seriously, yet making it clear through their quality that she meant business. 2017’s “Rainbow” saw a marked departure from her signature aesthetic, coming amid a time of emotional upheaval, involving a lawsuit against allegedly abusive former producer Dr. Luke. Having thoroughly expelled her demons on that record, Kesha returns to her trademark style, and takes it to new heights on “High Road,” an album full of playful personality, festivity and flair.
Opener “Tonight” starts with Kesha belting away, as if a ballad were to come, only to switch gears unanticipatedly, as an affected British voice repeats, “Bitch, we’re going out tonight,” and a beat kicks off. This is Kesha at her most frivolously camp, with over-the-top production that seals the deal — a readymade party in an airtight package. On “My Own Dance,” she makes it clear she’s returning to the days of “Blah Blah Blah,” singing, “Woke up this morning feeling myself / Hungover as hell like 2012 / Fuck it.” The titular line, “I don’t do that dance / I only do my own” rings true. Kesha overdoes her voice, approaching some caricature of a party girl. There’s a bit when the music pauses, and Kesha concludes, “Bitch, shut up and sing,” as the last word slurs and trails off, an appropriate summation of the cool abandon everywhere in the music. “Raising Hell” recruits New Orleans Bounce sensation Big Freedia, who seems to have been coming since the first track, her attitude already decidedly present in the music. This track, however, splits the difference between typical bounce fare and karaoke-ready histrionics, with Kesha pouring out an anthemic chorus as Freedia runs commentary.
The title track dives straight into the hook, erupts into a cheerleading romp, then promptly circles back, with all the fashionable flourishes one might expect, like a stuttered vocal and a choir of melismatic vowel sounds. “Shadow” recedes from the dancefloor, and lapses into full diva theatrics. Kesha is on a roll, with every gesture so far hitting home, insulated by a knowing levity that allows for free indulgences that would normally roll eyes, if not induce cringes, but here just comes across as a welcome bit of fun. “Honey” finds her focusing on the jokey, flirtatious speaking/rapping that has long been a trademark, taking it to new heights, before erupting into another chorus full of dramatic flair. The titular exclamation alone makes the song, and a designedly messy chorus of acknowledging voices dresses it up perfectly.
A striking feature of this album is the balance between the glossy pop perfection of the production and the deliberate casualness of the presentation. “Cowboy Blues” begins with Kesha giggling over acoustic guitar, going on to deliver such priceless lines as “I can’t help it I’m in bed with my three cats” in an impressive deadpan, and continuing to churn out catchy choruses effortlessly. “Resentment” assembles an impressive cast, with the legendary Brian Wilson and Sturgill Simpson, as well as LA singer/songwriter Wrabel. Simpson’s contribution is the most conspicuous, more in line with his early work than his recent madcap, electronic rock escapades. Having already teased country sensibilities for fleeting moments in previous tracks, Kesha follows through here, going for what is essentially a country song. The track shows a softer, more sentimental side, a marked departure from the festive frivolity that characterizes most of the album.
“Little Bit of Love” brings back the bombast, with all Kesha’s idiosyncrasies lined up neatly — an instant chorus, heart-on-sleeve belting, a celebratory stomp. “Birthday Suit” gets sillier yet, with video game sound effects, ASMR percussive clatter, and a chorus line of “I wanna get you in your birthday suit.” There are echoes of Gwen Stefani and perhaps Lady Gaga, but it really doesn’t sound like anyone but Kesha. Come “Kinky” Kesha is still at her coy, speaking shtick, and it’s almost in danger of growing a bit stale, but then, she explodes into the most extravagant chorus yet. She begins, “You like to put on my dress / I like to put on your boots,” and goes on to make due on the promise of the title.
“The Potato Song” sounds like a polka of some sort, captured on a phone and magnified tenfold, with a delightfully off-kilter brass band. Think back to childhood, when you expected one day you’d miraculously turn into an adult, only to realize that nothing really changed. If you don’t know the feeling, this song will show you. Daring, expressive, and truly one of a kind, it’s a sure standout, with lines like “Go grow some potatoes and flowers / Then go make sandcastles, then go eat some cake.” After all, that’s basically life, isn’t it?
Wrabel returns for “BFF,” a more understated number with a tinny, minimal drum track, R&B falsetto, shiny ‘80s synths, and a twee chorus about friendship, effectively captured in the carefree vocal harmonies. Things take a swift turn toward the sentimental on the unanticipated tearjerker, “Father Daughter Dance,” in which Kesha opens up about never knowing her dad. The chorus line “I’ll never have a father-daughter dance” can easily make one shed a tear, and the song surpasses anything yet in emotional depth when Kesha lets out a shriek sure to send shivers down spines. After all this intensity, closer “Chasing Thunder” can strike as a bit of a letdown, primarily because it resorts to the beyond-tired “Oh oh” chorus that has unashamedly plagued pop music in recent years. Otherwise, however, it brings the riot of an album to a fair enough, especially because you can’t help but take Kesha at her words when she insists, “I’m gonna keep on chasing thunder.”
“High Road” is a riot of an album. There are countless artists who dabble in the type of ironic, excessive pop indulgence as Kesha, but none who nail it quite like she does. There are moments of vulnerability scattered among the frenzied party anthems, and their scarcity makes the all the more powerful. Kesha has pointed out the double meaning of the title, at once denoting a rebound from the wallows of “Rainbow” and a hedonistic revelry. Kesha might even outdo Andrew W.K. when it comes to partying in hi def audio. Her latest album is a welcome return to form.
“High Road” is available Jan. 31 on Apple Music.