Kesha’s new album begins with a U-turn. After a few bars of tinkling piano balladry, the pop star drops a low-riding bassline and launches into the bratty style of rap-lite that made her famous in 2009 (recall her debut single Tik Tok, when she announced that she brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels). The quick genre-flip in Tonight is a sign of things to come from the singer’s fourth album: she has mostly ditched the gutsy drama of her last record and, instead, re-embraced her party girl persona. Case in point: the bouncy title track High Road, with its not-so-subtle double entendre: “I’m taking the high road / I’m high as fuck.” This is more like the Ke$ha who arrived in the early 2010s: dirty mouthed, silly, and always up for a big night out.
Things changed in 2014, when she filed a lawsuit against her former manager and producer, Dr Luke, AKA Lukasz Gottwald, accusing him of emotional and sexual abuse. Gottwald denied all charges and the case was dismissed; he is suing her for defamation’. Kesha remains signed to the label he founded, Kemosabe, though Gottwald left as CEO in 2017. In the wake of this very public trauma, she dropped the dollar sign from her name and released her heartfelt third album Rainbow, performing the wrenching ballad Praying in tears at the Grammys in 2018.
Now, Kesha is reconnecting with her former self. High Road is unmistakably the work of the same glitter-pop artist who tore up the charts in 2009, but with a new sense of underlying self-awareness: “Woke up this morning feeling myself / Hungover as hell like 2012,” she declares on the reflective My Own Dance, while referring to herself as both a “party girl” and a “tragedy”. Highlights include the ostentatious bounce of Raising Hell, featuring Big Freedia, and the chattering samples that make Honey feel like a rowdy, spontaneous bar singalong. On a long tracklist, there are downbeat detours, such as the syrupy duet BFF, and a couple of straightforwardly silly cuts that go for more theatrics than substance (Potato Song; Birthday Suit). But those who make it to the final song are rewarded with a rousing country gem: Chasing Thunder, a distillation of the earnest, gravelly voice that made Kesha a star.