‘You’re the party girl/You’re the tragedy/But the funny thing’s/I’m fucking everything’. The hook of the best track on High Road, ‘My Own Dance’, sums up Kesha’s place in Pop music at the start of 2020. Criticised for being too much of a mess on her debut hit ‘Tik Tok’ back in 2009; criticised for dropping the $ from her name and going too far the other way on 2017’s introspective Rainbow; criticised for even trying to find justice and freedom from a music contract that forced her to keep working with the man she claimed had assaulted her physically and mentally; Kesha just couldn’t win with some people.
High Road is a true moment of creative freedom from a star who defined most of the last decade for me, that for better or worse simply doesn’t give a single fuck what anyone could possibly say about it. It’s a mess. There’s no way I could sit here and write about this album as if it has any consistency musically, or that it’s as consistently good as some of her other albums, but over anything else you believe every word that comes out of Kesha’s mouth.
Opening with a string of pop dance bangers, it feels like a proper return to Ke$ha (the dollar sign being a very important distinction) but outside of ‘My Own Dance’, some of it manages to feel like a massive step back from what made the poppier songs on Rainbow so great. Opener ‘Tonight’ is all over the place, it sounds like the song has skipped to play something you’d hear on Drag Race before jolting back to a country sound again. ‘Raising Hell’ is full of life giving vigor, but the title track’s production ends up taking away from the welcome sentiment.
There’s flashes of this kind of stuff in the rest of the album, ‘Little Bit of Love’ is a thudding piano build like Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ meets Panic! at the Disco’s ‘High Hopes’, while ‘Kinky’ literally sees Kesha put that dollar sign back into her name as she appears as a featured artist on her own song. ‘Birthday Suit’ is built around a fake sample of the Super Mario Bros theme that’s so bonkers it genuinely manages to work. On the most part though, everything is much more stripped back than those initial songs would suggest.
The rawness of the vocal production on ‘Honey’ and ‘Cowboy Blues’ gives both songs this intimate live performance quality that contrasts massively with the overly produced songs that surround it. Obvious stand-out ‘Resentment’ which features Sturgill Simpson, Brian Wilson and Kesha’s BFF Wrabel is the closest thing we get to the emotional resonance of ‘Praying’ here. It’s the central killer song here and is sure to become one of Kesha’s career defining moments.
High Road is rarely an album that makes sense, there’s a song called ‘The Potato Song’ so what did you expect exactly. There’s brilliant moments, the aforementioned ‘Resentment’ and ‘My Own Dance’ as well as ‘Shadow’ and ‘BFF’ capture a lyricism that’s so honest and self deprecating that show Kesha at her best. ‘And I love singin’ fuck in all my songs/’Cause the only people who got time to get offended are the ones who probably never gotten off’ is funny as hell.
Are the likes of ‘Tonight’, ‘Kinky’ and ‘Chasing Thunder’ good songs? Probably not, which is why High Road never quite becomes an essential pop album, but you get the sense that Kesha really doesn’t give a shit. It may not be her best album, but literally no one else in pop could have created this album, it’s so obviously Kesha with or without a dollar sign; surely something to applaud.
Words by Sam Atkins