For most of its runtime we’re on a marvelous high where we’re at home in Kesha’s world while still guessing where she’ll take us next.
High Road opens with a piano chord. If we’ve heard Kesha’s last album Rainbow, we know what to expect: a triumphant karaoke anthem about climbing mountains and staring down demons. Then, pretty much without warning, it turns into a half-speed grind anthem with the drunkest backing vocals since Neil Young’s ditch trilogy. This isn’t even the only time on the album she does this. “Raise Hell” opens with a piano chord—then Big Freedia shows up.
High Road keeps us on our toes like that. This is a pop album as self-aware as it is sincere, somehow messy and wickedly consistent at the same time, and very likely the album that will go down as her best. Trust me—it’ll be enjoyed more as her fourth album than her latest. Once we get over the fact that it chucks Rainbow’s well-made rock-record pretenses out the window and makes no attempt to be tasteful or coherent, we can sift through its excesses and find a fun, moving pop album about the people who are there for us, the people who aren’t, and how what’s happens in our heads tends to be amplified—or erased—by booze.
Despite all the songs about partying, lost phones, drunken tattoos, and Ubers we find here, High Road is amazingly wholesome. She shouts out her mom on two songs, even surprising her with a call from the “Spice Girls” on “Kinky.” “BFF” with her real-life best friend Stephen Wrabel is sappy, but it understands those moments where two friends are fucked-up enough to appreciate each other in the most maudlin ways. She never explicitly mentions the abuse she endured under her former producer Dr. Luke, which led to legal entanglements that continue to this day. But the value of a support system is a major theme here, as is delineating between friends and haters.
The stakes of Rainbow are gone, but the rock and country sounds remain, and because there’s less pressure to sound “authentic,” they’re integrated more naturally. The guitars sound like instruments, not signifiers. “Little Bit Of Love” and “Resentment” are generic, but they’re songs, erring neither towards statements on one side or interludes on the other. “High Road” has fake Brian Wilson vocals. “Resentment” has real Brian Wilson vocals. Even a glib entreaty to suck her something is censored not with a clever “uh…” or elephant noise but with a swell of analog tape effects that could’ve been on an old Funkadelic record.
Rainbow gets strange in ways not a lot of pop albums dare to. “Potato Song” is a curious oompah novelty that might be a reimagining of the Doors’ “Alabama Song,” and a key lyric about being naked mirrors one on early hit “Blah Blah Blah,” this time rewritten to emphasize her agency. The chintzy ‘90s-R&B synth-curtains of “BFF” feel like a joke coming after it, and that song might be a joke itself, albeit one only she and Wrabel are in on. “Summer” is a descendant of her Pitbull collab “Timber,” a song that’s as obnoxious as you remember it but also seemed to predict the Gen Z cowboy thing.
High Road is so all-over-the-place it naturally feels unsteady. But the stinkers aren’t failed experiments—whether or not an experiment succeeds is moot on an album like this—but plain old bad songs. The tenth time she declares her “gypsy blood” on “Thunder” is as irritating as the first. “Shadow” is another pop song operating on the principle that gays want to hear their heroes say “shade” over and over again rather than wanting to hear good pop songs. But for most of its runtime we’re on a marvelous high where we’re at home in her world while still guessing where she’ll take us next.