Saturday, February 1, 2020

Review: High Road • Kesha

Once pop singer-songwriter Kesha severed ties with mega-producer Dr. Luke over allegations of abuse and discrimination in 2014, it seemed obvious that her impulsive party girl reputation would be abandoned and its memory forever tarnished. Filthy, ultra-saturated club tunes like "Sleazy" and "Take It Off" were perhaps successful primarily for their funhouse reflections of Kesha's maximalist personality, but in Luke’s business portfolio, they are essential pieces of evidence to prove his monopoly on pop music when the last decade began. That's quite the baggage for party tracks to carry.

But let it be remembered that it was Kesha, not her producer, who brought the party. And just as fast as she shut it down, she set up shop elsewhere: When she emerged from the high-profile litigation, Kesha moved venues from laser-lit club to smokey dive bar. On Rainbow, largely a frayed acoustic album, she sculpted her shameless chaos into a certain backroads rebellion that began to present itself on Warrior a few years prior but was ultimately paved over with a tempered electronic veneer. The album, when stacked against her previous two, revealed a hidden second side to Kesha's musicality – and on High Road, her four studio record, she enters a pivotal phase to marry the two.

Much like the record that preceded it, High Road isn't regimented. If Kesha invited her closest friends to the studio for a boozy all-night rager and recorded the party's progress, High Road would be the sloppy product by dawn: "Tonight" slams down Kesha's return to her trademarked sing-rapping before exuberant, off-key screams swallow it whole. Towards its center, it becomes an endearing singalong circle around a campfire: While "Cowboy Blues" and "Honey" listen like off-the-cuff song sketches over guitar plucks, "Shadow" and "Resentment" are full-bodied moments. (The record's most striking ballad, however, arrives near its close, where she shares focused reflections on a fatherless childhood on "Father Daughter Dance.")

Beaming a light through the prism that is Kesha, the record is charmingly nonconformist with a campy, do-it-yourself spirit. She reaches peak Kesha absurdity on "Raising Hell," which abuses brass for the sake of a galloping gospel breakdown, and “Kinky,” an effervescent sex anthem. With a similar spirit, she fragments “Birthday Suit” between tinny drums and chiptune noises before allowing it to resolve into a surprisingly breezy chorus. The record's most fun moments remind us why we fell in love with Kesha when she woke up in a stranger’s bathtub. But the strange digressions and unorthodox stylistic choices – with which this album is filled, perhaps a bit to its detriment when it spirals into utter nonsense like "The Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)" – often remind us why we've stuck with her.

High Road is available now under RCA Records.

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