Friday, June 12, 2020

Kesha, High Road (RCA/Kemosabe Records, 2020)

On her latest mind-blowing doozy of a pop confection, High Road, Kesha Rose Sebert comes out full-on as a true BFF of the gay community. Not that Kesha hasn’t always been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, because she’s been about as outspoken and supportive as an artistic ally could ever be. But because of the consistent vocal and songwriting presence of Kesha’s close friend, the gay musician Stephen Wrabel — who writes and records his songs simply as Wrabel, and who co-wrote nine of the fifteen tracks on High Road — Kesha’s recent album makes her an official honorary member of our community now. High Road is my favorite album of the year so far, and it’s also the gayest album of the year by a mile, too, in all of the best possible ways.

I’ve long thought that Kesha is pretty much a pop genius, and I’m not at all using that description lightly. Her songs are so fun and so smart sonically and lyrically that they place her on an entirely different level than most of her pop peers. Listeners who write her off probably just don’t have a thorough understanding of the intricacies of popular music, or they just think that pop music isn’t intricate in the first place. Sorry, but they’re all wrong, and Kesha’s High Road is in part about why they’re wrong. It’s also about survival, tenacity, fucking up, having a blast, questioning religion, coming clean, rising above the bullshit, loneliness and friendship, having sex with a stranger, crushing all negativity, endless cycles of forgiveness and resentment, growing up without a father, heartbreak, artistic persistence, being misunderstood, understanding, letting off steam, and most important of all, just getting down.

Just as the album’s themes are that damn all-encompassing, so are the album’s sonic romps through musical genres from unabashed pop to hip-hop to folk to country to gospel to big-band to house to hi-NRG dance to silly novelty songs complete with beeping ’80s video game background flourishes. From the album’s opening throwdown on “Tonight,” Kesha is clearly harkening back to her earliest hits intentionally on every level. Wrabel raps about calling Kesha up on the phone (“Bitch, we goin’ out tonight / Bitch, pick up your phone”). Kesha raps back in a hilarious response, and the punky flow of her lyrical acceleration is irresistible: “OK, we’re goin’ out tonight, don’t wanna stay home / I got my girls to call the Uber ‘cuz I can’t find my phone.” It’s a tiny mishap, a brief missed connection that opens up into a wild night of partying euphoria, “the best night of our lives.” From that point onward, we know what we’re in for, but the album nevertheless remains as unpredictable as all art is.

Then the percussive throb of “My Own Dance,” co-written by the awesome Justin Tranter, launches us off into the album’s most fabulous single, “Raising Hell,” which rapidly transforms itself from a church-basement piano intro into a reggae-spiked barn-burner of a dance-club cut, with Kesha “all fucked up in my Sunday best... / Bitch, I’m blessed” (“Hallelujah / I’m still here, still bringin’ it to ya ... / Mama raised me well / But I don’t wanna go to heaven without raising hell”). In Kesha’s religious universe, the only real place to find salvation is on the dancefloor. “High Road,” the album’s title track, is a double-entendre about having the decency to ignore our culture’s ever-escalating, social media-driven immaturity, and getting a bit high to ignore it when you need to. She also tosses in the finest sharp-pointed put-down of her storied career: “Could a bitch who’s dumb write a Number One? / More than one? More than two? More than you!” “Shadow” follows up that thought with a swift directive to leave Kesha — who’s already had to deal with a whole history of shady characters — to her sunshine and blue skies, in some peaceful land that’s far from darkness. Clearly, we could all use some of that sunny place right about now.

After “Honey” chronicles Kesha’s smackdown of a former female friend who betrayed her trust by dipping into her “sloppy seconds,” “Cowboy Blues” and the slow-burning “Resentment” anchor the album with a country-lite diptych of a centerpiece. Wrabel joins Kesha for a handsomely homespun duet on “Cowboy Blues,” a searching-for-love song that cleverly and delicately deconstructs all other love songs in the pop canon: “They say you know when you know / What do you do when you don’t? / They say in love, it’ll happen if it’s meant to happen / What do you do if it don’t?” Kesha wonders whether a cute Nashville dive-bar cowboy dressed up in shades of blue might’ve been the one she was meant to have kids with (“Did I fuck my whole life up? / Did I miss my one true love?”). Sturgill Simpson and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson both pitch in memorably and hauntingly on “Resentment,” which Kesha endows with as much gorgeous gravity as anything else to be found in her catalog, as she contemplates what emotion could be even worse than hate after being carelessly hurt by someone. So what does Kesha do? She moves past that contemplative midsection of her album to pursue some new lovers on the up-tempo pairing of “Little Bit of Love” and “Birthday Suit.”

The sublimely sexy “Kinky” and super-sweet “BFF” might be my favorite two songs Kesha has ever recorded. “Kinky” traces Ke$ha (as she’s billed on the track-listing for the song) pursuing a hot gender-blending, no-rules threesome where “Boys kiss boys kiss girls kiss girls / That’s how it’s meant to be.” (Yes, the benevolent spirit of Prince himself is absolutely looking out over this song.) And the pretty little chimes of “BFF” find Kesha and Wrabel trading off the most moving set of lyrical glances between a straight woman and her gay male best friend since probably the great “Moon River” scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “The day I met you we got drunk in the backyard / With our friend Drew / I remember we had our first slumber party / We were both feelin’ blue / A few months later, right before I went to rehab / You gave me my first tattoo / It was a hard time, a really fuckin’ dark time / Thank God I found you.” In terms of setting up a scene, I think it’s probably the best opening verse of any pop song from the past five years or so.

The album’s penultimate track, “Father Daughter Dance,” plumbs the depths of a strained father/daughter relationship better than any other song since Kelly Clarkson’s heartbreaking hit “Piece by Piece,” except that in Kesha’s song, the father is completely absent. She ponders in earnest the lifelong effect that it’s had on her and all of her other relationships (“Would he have protected me / From all the bad shit? The bad men? / Would I even be the same person?”). “Chasing Thunder” closes the album on a quietly triumphant note, as Kesha recounts her late grandmother’s story of an ageless girl who’ll be running towards a distant sky forever: “That’s the spirit, that’s the ghost inside of me / Baby, I’m not a rose, I’m a wildflower.” If Billie Holiday were still alive today, she’d be singing Kesha’s songs.