Kesha’s 2017 album, Rainbow, was deservedly seen as an empowerment victory lap. Released in the midst of her high-profile legal battles against producer Dr. Luke, the full-length jettisoned her neon veneer for glittery songs influenced by folk, glam rock, and soul. The album was still pop-oriented, but Rainbow allowed Kesha to show off her depth and range, and define herself more as a songwriter willing to dive into tough topics.
Speaking to The Guardian in late 2019, Kesha made it clear that she wasn’t quite out of this serious mind-set when tackling her fourth effort, High Road. “There was an element of not feeling like I should be celebratory because of everything I’ve gone through so publicly,” she said. However, Kesha also admitted being mad at her brother after he suggested she once again turn her attention to pop songs: “I don’t do well with people telling me what to do, and I was so conflicted about what I wanted versus what was expected of me, and trying to please everyone is exhausting.”
This tension—between re-embracing her carefree pop side or continuing down Rainbow’s self-reflective path—drives High Road. Half the record hews toward lyric-driven introspection (the piano ballad “Shadow”; twee, Swift-ian heartbreaker “Cowboy Blues”); the other half focuses on contemporary-sounding Top 40 jams (the hip-hop-influenced “Tonight”; the gospel-inspired dance-floor inferno “Raising Hell” and its gleeful Big Freedia feature). In the hands of other artists, an album veering between uptempo party tunes and subdued fare could sound chaotic. However, Kesha’s continued willingness to redefine pop on her own terms mitigates High Road’s occasionally jarring sonic segues. “The Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)“ is a Wonka-esque ode to preserving childlike innocence that’s full of oompah brass and saxophones; “Kinky” is a refreshing rush of ’80s electro-R&B; and the album-closing “Chasing Thunder” resembles the heartfelt folk-pop favored by Florence & The Machine.
The latter song’s message—that the protagonist is an untamed “wildflower,” not a “rose,” and will continue to seek out adventures—embodies one of High Road’s core lyrical points: Embracing uncertainty, and recognizing that many things are completely out of your control, is a great survival tactic. On the autobiographical title track, Kesha pokes fun at those who think she’s too much of an airhead to write hits or even spell her own name, and notes that she “ain’t losing no sleep” over their idiocy (the song is also a flippant spin on a cheerleader chant), while on “My Own Dance,” she grapples with the conflicting expectations placed upon her but asserts that she’s living life her own way.
Yet High Road resonates so deeply because Kesha isn’t ignoring or burying her feelings, but instead is using vulnerable songwriting as a coping mechanism. At times, this manifests as wry observations: On “Cowboy Blues,” a spare song dominated by watercolor-streaked harmonies, she muses about being “obsessed with some boy you met one time, three years ago in Nashville” and wonders, “Did I miss my one true love? / Was he right in front of me at the dive bar?” At other points, she delves even deeper into personal topics than she did on Rainbow, with frank lyrical sincerity that hits hard.
“Father Daughter Dance” finds her working out complicated feelings toward her absent father (“Would he have protected me from all the bad shit? The bad men?”), while the lovely and intimate “Resentment” (which features both Brian Wilson and Sturgill Simpson) is a country-tinted ballad about a relationship cracked apart by festering anger. The piano-heavy “Little Bit Of Love,” meanwhile, is deceptively jaunty: It addresses a partner who seems disinterested in being supportive or invested.
Not everything on High Road quite hits the mark. The bratty vocal veneer heard on “Tonight” and the friend kiss-off “Honey” worked in context with her early ’10s, whiskey-swigging persona, but sound and feel out of place here. Additionally, while the sentiments of “BFF” are sound—the shimmery synth-pop song extols the virtues of having unconditional support from a best pal—the tune’s form as a vocal duet with songwriting collaborator Wrabel feels forced. However, these are minor quibbles: High Road works because of Kesha’s self-assurance and self-possession. After all, as she says on “Shadow,” she’s still firmly in control of her destiny: “If you’re here to throw shade/Then you’re in the wrong place / Yeah, you’re blocking my sun.”