Kesha was embattled from the beginning. On her 2009 debut, she played a hard-partying dirtbag and became a glittery avatar of harmless depravity; critics, missing or ignoring her quasi-feminist lampoon of male behavior, wrote her off as an untalented attention-seeker. More recently, Kesha’s biggest fights have played out in courts of law rather than of public opinion, and her foes have been more fearsome. Still, her affect—at least the one she put into music—remained largely unyielding. “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick,” she declared on 2017’s “Let ’Em Talk,” a cut from the first album she released after unsuccessfully suing Dr. Luke, her former producer and mentor, over allegations of sexual and emotional abuse in 2014.
That album, Rainbow, was notably vague in its references to Kesha’s legal predicament; its core message is one of self-love and self-determination, haters (and unsympathetic judges) be damned. But in opting to “just let ’em talk,” Kesha invited the question of what she herself was withholding—a question that is bolded and underlined by the title of her fifth album, Gag Order. Kesha’s claims against Dr. Luke have been dropped or dismissed, and his countersuit for defamation is set to go to trial in July. “There’s so many things I said that I wish I left unsaid,” she sings on one new song. Speaking out has never seemed so perilous.
And so the Kesha of Gag Order is changed—still working in bold, chaotic gestures, but with the color drained from her palette. The survivor’s vim of Rainbow and youthful bacchanalia of its successor, 2020’s High Road, are gone; this Kesha is feeling her age, processing her trauma, relinquishing hope and then digging deeper in search of some more. “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” an anomaly, starts off with a glimmer of bygone times, with Kesha brat-rapping over a gimmicky cash register beat. But the first verse ends with a coffin-nailing declaration that reverberates across the record: “The bitch I was, she dead, her grave desecrated.” Tonally and spiritually, Gag Order recalls another album made by a pop star in the wake of a high-profile conflict with a powerful industry antagonist. The old Kesha can’t come to the phone right now, etc.
The production of this record—which Kesha made with Rick Rubin and various returning collaborators including her mom, songwriter Pebe Sebert—trends dark and stormy, powered by rumbling synths that sound like tornado sirens, or like a sandworm is lurking somewhere nearby. Played through the right set of speakers, the bleak and faithless opener “Something to Believe In” hits the chest harder than it hits the ears. This music shudders and roils; the way it lingers in the body feels potent on an album loaded with allusions to foundational trauma (though, per its title, much remains between the lines). “You don’t wanna be changed like it changed me,” is Kesha’s refrain on “Eat the Acid,” a song held together by an ominous drone. The lyric echoes a warning, once offered to Kesha by Pebe, about the risk of taking LSD: The mind can be expanded to the point of rupture. But innocence can be lost in more ways than one, and Kesha is certainly missing hers: “I remember when I was little/Before I knew that anyone could be evil,” she sings wistfully on “Happy.”
It feels like part of what Kesha is giving up is an idea she’s always championed: that pop music is galvanizing, collectively validating, full of the promise of the night and the dancefloor. On Gag Order, “we” dissolves into “I.” The beats, when present at all, tend to sink and trudge like stilettos in mud; nothing begs to be played on the radio or at a party (the bouncy “Peace & Quiet” comes closest). But the overall maturation of the work brings welcome changes. Kesha’s lyrics, as subtle as a hammer, feel more startlingly raw than lazily underwritten. Her voice, which she has often wielded like a blunt instrument, is used more delicately, smudged through filters and applied in rich, textural layers, in the mold of singers like Feist or Fiona Apple.
Even passing familiarity with Kesha’s previous work is enough context to make all these shifts jarring, and she leans hard into that sense of disruption, pushing it to the limit with her more eccentric choices. “The Drama” takes a haunted carnival ride through a demented key change before arriving at an outro, co-written with Kurt Vile, that sounds like a vintage pet food jingle spliced with a Ramones interpolation—which is to say, like psychosis. Kesha incorporates a number of spoken interludes: The mystic and cult leader Osho, the neo-pagan priest Oberon Zell, and the New Age philosopher Ram Dass are among the voices heard across the record, holding forth on cycles of grief and healing and the triumph of love. In Rubin—as much a guru as he is a producer—Kesha’s found a collaborator willing to indulge her spiritualist tangents. But neither the ideas nor the audio clips feel fully integrated into a broader theme of the album.
Her ambivalence is more potent. On “Hate Me Harder,” the record’s inevitable power ballad, Kesha is once again sticking it to the haters, but now her message is flecked with masochism. With its gradual crescendo and insistent pulse, the song sounds like it’s heading towards a rousing final chorus, but instead ends a cappella, a calculated retreat rather than a full-throated triumph. “Fine Line” scrutinizes the high-wire act of celebrity and all its treacherous binaries. “Don’t fucking call me a fighter,” Kesha snarls, flinching at the empowerment language she herself has used. It’s not that the label’s inaccurate; it’s that it reinforces an unfair expectation of strength.
“Fine Line” ends with something like a thesis statement: “There’s a fine line between what’s entertaining and what’s just exploiting the pain/But hey, look at all the money we made off me.” It’s a line that collects all the demoralizing losses and pyrrhic victories of the past decade of her life and centers not the story but its protagonist, who—despite this record’s sonic mutations and the declaration of her own death—remains recognizably herself. Kesha, as ever, dares us to call her too loud, too messy, or too much.
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