There are difficult follow-up records, and then there’s Rainbow. Since the release of Kesha’s second album, 2012’s Warrior, the pop shapeshifter’s music has taken a backseat to her contentious, complicated legal battle with producer—and accused abuser—Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Even today, the case is far from settled; the two continue to hash out allegations and contractual sticking points. But in the meantime, the grueling ordeal has made Kesha into a feminist hero, while also forcing her to weather the storm of those, including courts and her own record label, who have taken Gottwald’s side.
Understandably, these legal machinations have made it difficult for Kesha to get into the studio. Save for a collaboration with Zedd (the surging electro-pop anthem “True Colors”), Kesha has largely stuck to live shows to keep her career going. Unsurprisingly, these concerts feel like communal catharsis, where Kesha and her fans commiserate about oppressive assholes and shitty life situations by tossing glitter, dancing up a storm, singing their hearts out, and (at least briefly) not giving a fuck about the outside world.
The inspired Rainbow replicates that liberating atmosphere, where confessional ballads and inspirational torch songs mingle with dance-pop jams and punkish rave-ups. This stylistic grab bag is far more cohesive than it sounds, mainly because Kesha veers between playful and serious moods with casual aplomb.
On the scuzzy garage-punk stomp “Boogie Feet,” she employs robotic rapping and disco-diva soars, and matches guests Eagles Of Death Metal note-for-exaggerated-Elvis-sneer-note. “Let ’Em Talk” is a fizzy, new wave aerobics workout that could easily double as an upbeat Broadway show-stopper, while the sassy “Boots” is an electro-twang hybrid with quivering strings, icy house music beats, and drawling come-ons.
In contrast, the sparser “Finding You” finds Kesha channeling Florence Welch’s pure, powerful trills, while the whimsical, acoustic-leaning waltz “Godzilla” is a fantastical daydream about falling in love with the movie monster. The underlying message is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, something Kesha conveys with an impish, almost shy, delivery.
Rainbow’s outside collaborators further complement her diverse inspirations. The orchestral title track—a wondrous song about reclaiming your core essence and learning how to trust yourself again—has the unmistakable imprint of Ben Folds, who contributes plaintive piano and buoyant string arrangements. (The song brims with so much possibility, it’s redolent of when television moved from black and white to color.) The soulful, funky strut of “Woman” features crisp accents from the Dap-Kings horns and a charming interlude where Kesha dissolves into giggles—a rare and welcome flaw on a mainstream pop record.
And then there’s the show-stopping cover of “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle to You),” a duet with Dolly Parton—another woman who knows a little something about battling sexism. The collaboration has special meaning: Not only did Parton take the song to No. 1 on the country charts in 1980, but the tune was co-written by Kesha’s mom, Pebe Sebert. Unsurprisingly, this version is particularly ferocious. The women sound strong and unwavering as they express gratitude for the gifts of their current romantic partner, and the song ends with both of them trading off cleansing, wordless hollers.
Somewhat incongruously, Rainbow is less successful on its more straightforward pop moments. Despite its earnest message about embracing imperfections and living life to the fullest, the breezy, electro-tinted pop of “Hymn” feels indistinguishably nondescript. “Learn To Let Go” is marginally better, boasting an unabashedly catchy chorus and Zen-like themes, but its reggae-pop approach is dated and similarly generic. And then there’s the Johnny Cash-esque cowboy lope “Hunt You Down,” a slightly hokey threat to a boyfriend who’d better not indulge his wandering eye. This triptych sounds almost calculated, as if Kesha is inhabiting a persona rather than living her truth—which runs counter to Rainbow’s free-flowing, authentic spirit.
In fact, Rainbow is at its best when Kesha implicitly acknowledges her current situation and cranks up the empowerment. The torchy, intimate opener “Bastards” is a de facto mission statement, with Kesha sounding live and unfiltered as she croons helpful affirmations: “Don’t let the bastards get you down / Oh, no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out / Don’t let the mean girls take the crown.” As the song progresses, Kesha’s voice gets stronger and more defiant. “But they won’t break my spirit,” she proclaims, drawing out the last word for dramatic emphasis. “I won’t let them win.”
“Let ’Em Talk,” meanwhile, underscores its devil-may-care vibe via a low-key bridge where she sweetly sings, “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick.” Such self-awareness works even better on Rainbow’s deeper moments. During “Boots,” Kesha talks about being wary of marriage until she met someone who changed her mind, while “Spaceship” is about feeling like an alienated misfit on Earth, and knowing she’ll fit in more among the cosmos. In an even more striking moment, on the roaring anthem “Woman,” she alternates the line, “I run my shit, baby,” with the rather pointed lyric, “I write this shit, baby.”
The brilliance of Rainbow is that it reflects Kesha’s current ordeal, but it does it through lyrics and themes that are broad enough to avoid being tied solely to this moment in time—or just to her. Rather, it’s a bold, focused, universal statement about freedom—from self-hatred, from paralyzing internal conflicts, from gender expectations, from negative influences, and (especially) from other people’s shit. Her legal issues may continue, but long after the storm clears, Rainbow promises that Kesha will have the last word.