In 2017, Kesha showcased a dimension of herself unthinkable years prior. That album, Rainbow, dealt with the trauma of her manipulation under producer Dr. Luke and the high-profile legal battle that ensued. It was an important album to make, possibly defining Pop music’s navigation through the empowerment that was the early #MeToo movement.
On her third full-length album High Road, Kesha returns to the glory of her own golden era nearly a decade ago, reviving the party-girl, no fucks outlook on youth that soundtracked many a teenager’s first drunk. The revival is not a metaphorical one; fans mourned the death of Kesha’s jouissance upon learning that it may have been darker and more contrived than initially thought.
This was difficult territory to navigate; Kesha’s newfound freedom from the abusive and controlling producer was a glorious victory for all, highlighting the very real barriers and dangers women still face making music in a supposedly modern age. One couldn’t help but feel, however – and a more difficult caveat could hardly be conceived in popular music discussions – that those years produced some of the great Top 40 of the 21st century.
Three years later, Kesha puts that concern to rest; High Road is a glorious triumph for Kesha and Pop music at large. Overstatement? Not even remotely. The beauty of Kesha is the pure effortlessness of producing music for maximum pleasure under the guise of a frivolous hedonist. It’s a true and underappreciated craft, and one for which Kesha has never been given her full due.
High Road opens with four consecutive, unambiguously triumphant and empowering anthems. On ‘My Own Dance,’ a largely acoustic number, a chorus of handclaps and subsonic bass accompany an early front-runner for the album’s lyrical highlight, “Hey / I don’t do that dance / Don’t circumcise my circumstance;” the track, like so many others on High Road, navigates the tension between uninhibited self-indulgence and female assertiveness. These are traditionally conflicting notions for the genre, and Kesha is fierce in her resolve to reconcile the two.
While High Road’s party anthems pull all the weight of Kesha’s most infectious singles of the past – ‘Tik Tok,’ ‘Your Love is My Drug,’ ‘Die Young,’ and ‘We R Who We R’ – they’re also less abrasive in their production and instrumentation. This is not to say that the album’s more mature production threatens Kesha’s status as Banger Icon; quite the opposite. Instead, producers Jeff Bhasker and Ryan Lewis, notable for their collaborations with Kanye West and Macklemore respectively, showcase Kesha’s uncanny wit, clever writing, and undervalued voice with a more tasteful sheen.
Among the album’s generous fifteen tracks are the deeply personal ballads ‘Resentment,’ a gorgeous acoustic duet featuring Sturgill Simpson and Brian Wilson, and the agonizing elegy ‘Father Daughter Dance’ wherein Kesha reflects on the impact of an absent father on her life. Piano power-ballad ‘Shadow’ and album closer ‘Chasing Thunder’ are at once meditative and lighthearted, offering a breather from the onslaught of high-octane romps that make up the bulk of High Road. The ratio is ideal and the pacing masterful.
How listeners’ and critics’ perception of Kesha will evolve remains to be seen; her story is tumultuous and her genius underappreciated, all over the course of a decade-long tug-of-war between burned-out hangover queen and resilient victim of a disguised manipulator. High Road features Kesha at the very height of her powers: a voice of triumph and a cunning, unassuming icon of the contemporary pop landscape. She begins anew with her third album, unabashedly herself on her own terms, more unrestrained than ever before.