When it comes to music, there’s a fine line between versatile and all over the place.
In the modern pop music space, the two artists that do the former the best are P!nk and Taylor Swift, and although I’m not really a fan of either of them, I can still appreciate the sonic consistencies and mannerisms these artists exhibit across all of their music. Whether it’s country, pop or rock, P!nk always sounds like P!nk and Taylor Swift always sounds like Taylor Swift.
Kesha is the flip side of that coin. Her newest album, “High Road,” is an all-over-the-place mess, that despite being only 15 songs, feels like a completely bloated and confused oeuvre that’s more interested in shock value than quality.
At the start of the 2010s, Kesha, who at the time went by Ke$ha, was poised to be the biggest female pop singer of the decade, and for a time at the very start, she was. Songs like “TiK ToK,” “Right Round” and “Blah Blah Blah” all peaked in the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10 in 2010, and follow up singles in subsequent years like “We R Who We R,” “Die Young” and “Warrior” all served to affirm Kesha’s ear for catchy pop hits. Kesha’s fade into obscurity began in 2014 at the start of an extensive legal battle with her producer Dr. Luke. The outcome of the lawsuit didn’t lean in the singer’s favor, and Kesha disappeared from music shortly after.
Kesha returned to music in 2017 with her album “Rainbow,” which she released under the name Kesha, dropping the dollar sign and signifying a shift in style to one that was more grown-up. However, Kesha’s 2020 album “High Road” does little to solidify that maturity, and often feels like more of a regression than a progression. Gone are any of the deeper themes of abuse, mental health and hair metal sonics that were so prevalent on “Rainbow.” They’re replaced by brain-dead pop synths, childish lyrics and cringe-inducing pop-rap vocal delivery. Despite Kesha being a talented singer-songwriter, “High Road” doesn’t give her many opportunities to flex those muscles.
The opening song “Tonight” opens with a soft piano introduction, as Kesha’s powerful vocals glide through the minimal soundscape. The easy listening is quickly replaced with faux-techno, dubstep-inspired vocal loops and quips about getting drunk, getting high and having a rip-roaring girl’s night out. The choppy delivery is nauseating, the lyrics are over the top and excessive in their profanity and the rare moments that are musically interesting are slashed in service of sounds far less absorbing.
The album has a brief breakthrough on the fifth song, “Shadow,” which uses a grand piano as the instrumental’s background and layers it with an 808 drum machine and deep sub-bass that give Kesha plenty of space to croon about loving life, ignoring critics and telling people to get their shadows out of her blue sky. Some subtle vocal harmonies also lend a great deal of depth to the intense vocal delivery, and an extended violin outro concludes the song with one of the album’s only quiet moments.
The high streak continues into “Honey,” which features Kesha’s most engaging melodies on the album. The song features a simple electric guitar and kick drum pattern that Kesha floats across with heavily layered and harmonized lyrics about an ex-lover cheating on her with her best friend. The emotion is palpable, and the track is one of the few songs on the album that sounds like Kesha actually wanted to make it.
Songs like “BFF (feat. Wrabel)” and “Father Daughter Dance” are also high points, which do away with the expensive sounding, often overly crowded production and replaces it with more minimal sounds and open instrumental canvases that allow Kesha to use her impressive vocal and songwriting abilities that have gone mostly unused across the rest of the album.
However, any turnaround this album was going to make is short-lived, and the album somehow gets worse. Songs like “Birthday Suit,” “Little Bit of Love” and “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” — yes, that’s actually a song on the album — return to the rap delivery, generic production and immature lyrics. The song “Kinky (feat. Ke$ha)” is probably the most offensively bad song on the album, and it brings all the previously noted pitfalls of the album front and center.
The song is the most over-the-top in its explicit themes and subject matter. The potentially interesting angle of featuring Kesha’s former artistic self is pretty meaningless when most of the songs on the album sound so similar to the alter ego she made such a priority to leaving behind. I actually don’t think I could tell you when Ke$ha’s part starts and when it ends, which unintentionally illustrates the biggest problem with this album. Kesha and Ke$ha are the same person, and although Ke$ha’s debut album “Animal,” is over 10 years old, the music the artist is making now is still as immature and youthful as it was then.
“High Road” often feels less like an album made by an artist with a singular vision and more like an album made by a committee. Like an attempt by a board room of record executives throwing whatever they can grab at the wall and hoping it sticks, the result is a jumbled mess of sonics with almost no interesting moments. The low points are the lowest of the low, and the high points are still pretty middle of the road. It’s kind of ironic.