For almost a decade, Kesha’s career and life have been in a state of purgatory as she’s been locked in a legal battle that has at times left her with a precarious future. On the two albums she released in the midst of endless court hearings, she put up an empowered front, searching for hope in the face of uncertainty.
Gag Order — a brilliant name for her latest album — says “screw that.” On her fifth LP, Kesha is tired, angry, and vicious. There’s a lot she still can’t say, but she unspools as much of her feelings as she can across 13 scorched-earth tracks that present an artist pulling herself back up from the brink of madness.
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The most striking element of Kesha’s latest is the sound; working with producer Rick Rubin, she has found a psychedelic middle ground between the sleazy synths of her 2012 breakthrough, Warrior, and the rootsy and Southern rock of her past two, 2017’s Rainbow and 2020’s High Road. The songs oscillate between introspective, ambient folk tunes, and bold, grunge-y electro-clash.
Lyrically, Gag Order is a study in being open about being irreparably changed by trauma. Kesha still hopes for hope itself, but more often, she’s allowing herself to be honest about the damage done to her mental health, career, and relationships by years of battling her old producer Dr. Luke, whom she accused of sexual and emotional abuse and whose label she is still technically signed to.
“Something to Believe In” opens the LP like a solemn prayer: “I sit and watch the pieces fall/I don’t know who I am at all,” she offers, before admitting, “You never notice you need something to believe in.” The spare “Living in My Head” is a gorgeous tapestry of anxiety and self-loathing, with the singer trying to free herself from the chaos in her mind. Following that, she slips down a rabbit hole: “This is where you fuckers pushed me/Don’t be surprised if shit gets ugly,” she sings on “Fine Line.” As it progresses, she walks a fine line between “genius and crazy.” On “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” she straddles the tension between justice and pettiness: “I’m gettin’ sued ’cause my mom has been tweetin’/Don’t fucking tell me that I’m dealing with reason.”
There’s a shocking amount of softness from Kesha here, with songs like “Too Far Gone” pulsing like a funeral march for the girl she used to be. “All I Need Is You” reaches out to someone — or everyone — to lift her up. Carrying the album is that same silly humor that always made Kesha a pop star cut from an animal-print-patterned cloth of her own. On “The Drama,” she reflects, “In the next life I wanna come back as a house cat,” for the final minute and a half.
She may never find the rainbow she once sang about, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t radically advocating for her own happy ending. The album even ends with “Happy,” a weary but lovely ballad dedicated to life not turning out the way you hope. As she sings on that song, she’s gotta laugh so she doesn’t die. Even that is its own kind of victory.
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