KESHA – HIGH ROAD
There’s no easy way around it, Kesha’s had a rough go at it. Between eating disorders and her lawsuits, her personal life hasn’t been what one might call a good time. However, she has proven over and over to be incredibly strong, pushing through the adversity and not allowing it to keep her from doing what she loves to do: make music. Despite the less than agreeable trajectory her lawsuits have followed, she must have at least earned some creative freedom. Regardless of the score I put at the bottom of this page, this is a bold album for a pop star to release.
The range of styles and influences present on this album is far and wide and apparent in the very first track. “Tonight” starts like an epic piano ballad in the vein of songs like “We Are Young,” talking about how we need to live our lives now because it’s all we might have. Which sounds terribly cliche, but you soon learn that it’s intentionally cliche. The song quickly transitions to the party pop that made Kesha famous on her debut. This same style shows up on a few tracks on this album to great effect (especially “My Own Dance,” “Raising Hell,” and “Birthday Suit”), proving that she’s still really good at her specific brand of tongue-in-cheek, simple pop that serves no other purpose than to be fun to dance to.
The other style that appears on here is a more emotional country-ish pop that appeared on her last album, Rainbow. This is best on “Chasing Thunder” that blends gospel gang vocals and even little hints of bluegrass. “Country Blues” is similar, and while the sentiment of wondering if you missed a chance at a happy relationship feels sincere, its attempts at being cute only kind of work. The other notable track in this style is “Resentment” featuring Sturgill Simpson, Brian Wilson (yes, the Beach Boys guy), and Wrabel. Despite the input from true musical heavyweights, the song ends up being only okay. The rest of the tracks fall into pretty basic pop, but nothing is outright bad. There is one outlier, but we’ll get to that later.
If you go into a Kesha record looking for real thought provoking lyrical depth, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Deep is something Kesha just doesn’t do, but she’s also self-aware. You can pretty easily tell that being deep isn’t the goal on the dance tracks. That doesn’t mean that she’s a bad lyricist, in some cases she’s actually clever and crass at the same time. You get a sense that every “fuck” is a statement and you can’t tell me “don’t circumcise my circumstance” wasn’t a deliberate choice. A lack of depth also doesn’t mean that she can’t be sincere. I previously mentioned “Cowboy Blues,” but there’s even more genuine sincerity on tracks like “BFF” and “Father Daughter Dance.” The former is a truly heartfelt appreciation of her friendship with Wrabel and the latter expresses how she feels like she missed out on experiences other girls get to have since she never knew her father.
The only song that doesn’t really land for me at all is “The Potato Song.” It’s intended to be this statement song about how she can do whatever she wants and it has this oom-pah beat and intentionally silly lyrics. And I get it, I really do; it’s symbolic. She’s proving that she can do what she wants by putting this truly ridiculous song on her album. You can take it as her really just driving the point home or taking it too far. Personally, I lean more towards it being a step too far. You’ve been spending the entire album trying to make this point. Was taking it to the lengths of “The Potato Song” really necessary on an album that’s already 15 or 16 tracks long?
At the end of the day, High Road is a long-ish and uneven record. But when it’s good, it’s a lot of fun. Kesha is out to prove that she’s not going to let the bad things that happen to her keep her down. She’s answering to nobody but herself and she’s going to make her music the way she wants to, dammit! It’s a refreshing exercise in self-expression in the current landscape of pop music, even if some of those expressions fall a little short.