Kesha, the rare kind of bonafide star who goes by one name, recently summed up her latest album with a reference to another mononymous pop deity. She reminded an audience: “The great poet Pitbull once said, ‘We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.’” It’s probably safe to say the Floridian cueball didn’t coin the phrase himself, but he’s not one to overthink things and, on her uneven fourth album ‘High Road’, neither is Kesha.
‘High Road’ flits between brassy alt-pop tomfoolery in the vein of Harry Nilsson (‘Potato Song (Cuz I Want To))’ and thumping movie trailer euphoria (the acoustic guitar-led ‘Chasing Thunder’). Along the way, there’s plenty of the booming, flashy electronic pop that made Kesha’s P. Diddy-name-checking ‘Tik Tok’ such a huge hit in 2009. The mood sometimes swings to introspective – moving ballad ‘Father Daughter Dance’ pulls off the Kanye West trick of using Auto-Tune to convey human fallibility – before it bounces back to boisterous and carefree. Midway through the warm ‘Raising Hell’, the pop star slips into the guise of a jubilant preacher, letting loose and exclaiming: “Ladies and gentlemen – let’s shake what the good Lord gave us!”
2017’s ‘Rainbow’ was infamously released under the shadow of Kesha’s knotty court case with producer Dr Luke, whom she claimed “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” That situation is still ongoing but ‘Rainbow’ seemed to represent a kind of public closure (even though, like this album, it was partly released via the label he founded, Kemosabe, to which Kesha is still legally bound). Stuffed with rootsy country pop that in its own way anticipated Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s songs on A Star Is Born, it depicted the singer as a survivor who had emerged from hardship as a stronger and steelier individual.
“The last record was very intense, and had a very deeply therapeutic subject matter,” Kesha recently told NME. “And now I just wanna beeline for happiness. My fans have stood by me through so much, and now I want to give them a record that they’re just going to fucking love.”
So perhaps that’s why ‘High Road’s is so sonically inconsistent; Kesha was just doing whatever felt good at the time. Want first track ‘Tonight’ to open as piano pop inspired by ‘Joanna’-era Gaga and lurch to crunching EDM before swelling into mass-market chart fodder? Sure! Feel like enlisting voguish alt-country innovator Sturgill Simpson and – deep breath – actual Beach Boy Brian Wilson to pick through regret-drenched acoustic number ‘Resentment’? Why not! Want to combine abrasive retro video game sound effects with a radio-friendly refrain on ‘Birthday Suit’? Erm… yep, you got it.
The thing is, though: while just doing what you want is a great theme ideologically, it doesn’t really add up musically. ‘Rainbow’ was consistent sonically and thematically. There were concessions to the mainstream – Kesha’s always had keen commercial instincts, even after she dropped the jokey ‘$’ in her name – but on the whole it mixed bruised determination with a calloused country aesthetic. ‘High Road’ wedges Peter Gabriel-style MOR pop track ‘BFF’ in between ‘Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)’ and ‘Father Daughter Dance’, which kinds of says it all.
There are, however, some brilliant songs here. ‘Father Daughter Dance’, with the excoriating lyric “I don’t even know if I wanna have kids/I don’t wanna fuck ‘em up the way you did”, is one such song, as is uplifting gospel stomper ‘Chasing Thunder’. The rootsier material is often fantastic, which shows up the goofier stuff even more. Kesha has balanced tender country songs with blinging pop throughout her career, but you may wish for ‘High Road’ to stick to one lane.
Release date: January 31
Record label: RCA / Kemosabe