Kesha’s fifth album kicks off with a throwback.
After a bait-and-switch piano intro, opening track “Tonight” bursts into a gleefully rapped verse reminiscent of her autotuned party anthems like “Crazy Kids” and “Sleazy.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that the second song, brash banger “My Own Dance” has her “hungover as hell like 2012.”
If there’s any ambiguity as to her mood, the fourth track clears things up: High Road, it seems, is short for “high as f*ck.”
Kesha’s always good at creating a sense of fun on her records, but this feels like a side of her we haven’t really heard in a while.
High Road is less rock-oriented than her last few albums, which featured cameos from punk icon Iggy Pop and rockers Eagles of Death Metal, but leans further into country on several tracks (following in the footsteps of her mother, songwriter Pebe Sebert, who wrote a hit for Dolly Parton back in the day).
She melds pop with gospel on the joyous “Raising Hell,” which sees her defiant vocals backed up by an eclectic arrangement of horns, organ, and what sounds like a church choir.
From there, things slow down a bit, with power ballad “Shadow” and a couple of mid-tempo acoustic tracks that range from tongue-in-cheek to achingly sincere: she takes aim at a disloyal friend on hip-hop-tinged “Honey” and ruminates on her “love addiction” in “Cowboy Blues.” These songs serve as a reminder of her stylistic range, as well as the power of her unadorned vocals.
“Resentment,” meanwhile, is a gorgeous country ballad that sets gentle harmonies from Sturgill Simpson and Beach Boy Brian Wilson against some of her most resigned, subtly scathing lyrics: “I don’t hate you baby / it’s worse than that/ because you hurt me baby, and I don’t react.”
The last third of the record is the most delightfully eclectic, with quirky arrangements drawn from eighties pop, eight bit video game soundtracks, girl groups and cabaret. (“Kinky” is a giddy confection reminiscent of Britney Spears’s similarly-themed “3”, and “Potato Song” sounds a little bit like something Amanda Palmer would have written in her Dresden Dolls days).
Her lyrics are typically frank, and there are moments of confession here (she casually shares wisdom from therapy sessions on “Cowboy Blues,” and penultimate track “Father Daughter Dance” has her wondering how her life would have turned out if she’d known her dad: “Would he have protected me from all the bad shit?”).
But on the whole, the stakes feel lower here than they did on her previous album.
2017’s Rainbow was her first release since a lengthy legal battle, hospitalization for an eating disorder, and an accusation of rape against her former producer, and that record – which boasted some of her most defiant and heart-wrenching songs – felt like it had something to prove. High Road, aptly, sounds like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders.
(That said, there’s a knowing element to this carefree vibe. On “My Own Dance,” she sums up the demands of the pop machine thusly: “Well, the Internet called and it wants you back / but could you kinda rap and not be so sad?”)
On the album’s final track, wonderful folk-rock anthem “Chasing Thunder,” she reflects on how her experiences have changed her without robbing her of her love for life: “She was wild she was free, face the fire fearlessly – that’s the spirit, that’s the ghost inside of me.”
Kesha’s at the height of her powers here. Effortlessly hopping between genres, and running the gamut from defiant whimsy to scathing self-awareness, High Road is a showcase of the diversity of her lyrical and musical skill. It’s also a giddy good time.
Title: High Road
- My Own Dance
- Raising Hell (feat. Big Freedia)
- High Road
- Cowboy Blues
- Resentment (feat. Sturgill Simpson, Brian Wilson & Wrabel)
- Little Bit of Love
- Birthday Suit
- Kinky (feat. Ke$ha)
- Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)
- BFF (feat. Wrabel)
- Father Daughter Dance
- Chasing Thunder