In this, the moment of proper justice that is #MeToo and Time’s Up, it is hard considering Kesha — in her past, the walking embodiment of a cross between a beer bong and a disco ball — without thinking about the headlines, heartache and hassles she’s been through for the better part of the last decade. Then again, since 2014, and the start of her suit against producer and label head Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald for alleged sexual assault, abuse and battery, it’s been hard to hear Kesha, period.
After appealing for freedom from her recording contract, the courts dismissed her lawsuit and rejected requests to terminate her Kemosabe/Sony label deal. Kesha couldn’t sing for her so-called abuser, but she couldn’t leave. There was no longer joy to being the woman with the $ in her name, or party-balling pride in being the girl who brushed her teeth with Jack Daniels. She was frozen, as if the all of the fun, frolic and rough dance-pop vibes had been yanked out of her.
When she finally did record, on Kemosabe in 2017, Kesha dropped an album, “Rainbow,” that not only tentatively played upon musical themes of freedom — sounds she claimed Dr. Luke would never allow such as husky rock, country and gospel-inspired melodies — but abuse, trauma and its aftereffects. “Rainbow” was solid, even searing at times, with titles such as “Woman” allowing her the opportunity to shout from the rafters lines like “I’m a mother—in’ woman” with the release of a primal scream. Still, it sounded exhausted in a fashion, as if its singer was winded by all she had been through up to that point.
If “Rainbow,” then, was the tremulous tone of Kesha in a funky fugue state, her newly released “High Road” is the sound of reclamation and abandon, of finding her form and shedding old skin, of locating exactly where the party’s at in 2020, then tearing apart the dance floor with a pick axe and a tough, glam-pop-hop roar. With that, Kesha not only claims independence and free-forward motion, but shows, again, that she sounds like no other female on the pop charts.
Producing the new album herself with Jeff Bhasker (of Kanye “808s & Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” fame) and others, “High Road” returns Kesha, confidently, to the mix of sleazy glitter-pop, EDM-tinged bangers and swirling balladry of her first two albums — 2010’s “Animal” and 2012’s “Warrior” — but with the benefit of age, experience, genuine relief and some real polish behind her words and melodies. Kesha is not the snot-nosed kid brushing her teeth with Jack: She’s brushing with champagne and singing with wisened rag and genuine joy. She’s even cocky enough to bring back the $ in the middle of her name on the aptly titled kicker, “Kinky,” as if she’s welcoming home an old rowdy friend she’s sure will make a mess.
Starting with the torrid, Elton-ish pop of “Tonight” and the club-rap cat-call to feel everything she’s going through — breathing, flying, raging — a gravelly sounding Kesha announces that “High Road” will be a trashy, furry and emotional trip she’ll have no reason (or allegedly abusive boss) to slow or stop. If you follow the album, track by track, start to finish, it’s as if she’s penned a cranked-up diary she’ll more than likely burn after reading. All the while, her voice, whether rapping, singing or both at once, crackles with drama, swoons with sensual aplomb, and curls from all the snipes she’s planning.
When she hits upon the trap-rapping pop of “My Own Dance,” Kesha snidely refers to herself as a “tragedy” on top of being a “party girl,” while allowing herself a que-sera-sera moment with lyrics such as “Woke up this morning feeling myself / Hungover as hell like 2012” and the whack-reflective “I get it, that you been through a lot of s— / But life’s a b—-, so come and shake your t–s.”
Kesha continues her funny frankness on the clomping R&B anthem “Honey” by recalling a ride-or-die proximity and a shoulder-to-cry-on sweetness with the friend who’s the subject of the song — “We even used to pee together,” she intones — before reminding the subject of her newly found scorn that she’s broken “the girl code… the golden rule.” Kesha has been through too much to start being forgiving now.
If “Honey” is one brand of whining, cocky singalong, “Cowboy Blues” is another, a country-tinged acoustic number where she rushes the phrases in Drake-like gulps, while asking if you’ve ever laid in bed “with your three cats, and get obsessed with some boy you met, one time, three years ago in Nashville” as she has.
With a vocal that cracks and squeaks in all the right places, Kesha wonders if she made a mess of her life and missed her one true love, yet she rolls along, pragmatically, with a life to live and a path to follow. It’s a true “just saying” moment, painful and blunt and poignant without allowing for treacle.
She continues the confessional with “Father Daughter Dance,” where she yearns for the childhood she missed out on by not having a dad around, and closes ”High Road” with a shout-out to her grand-mom and the spirit of “gypsy blood” that runs through her family in “Chasing Thunder.” The latter, a stomping, churchy acoustic number ripe with the thrill of psychic victory, is as if her previous album, “Rainbow,” was given a shot of adrenaline and the empowerment of risk. It’s a mighty moment.
In between, Kesha enlists the queen of New Orleans bounce, Big Freedia, in “Raising Hell” and turns the mischief and sexuality of youth into a rootsy gospel anthem. Other help on “High Road” comes in the odd-fellows form of backing vocalists Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson and Wrabel on the ragged acoustic number “Resentment.” A genuinely pretty melody and a smart, sad lyric that touches on so many elements of her past (“I don’t hate you babe / It’s worse than that / ’Cause you hurt me / And I don’t react”) shows a Kesha that has moved on, fast and furiously, without being able to forget the pain that allowed for such progress.