“I got too many people / I got left to prove wrong,” Kesha sings softly on “Bastards,” the first track on her third studio album Rainbow. With just a guitar and a beautiful, raw vocal performance, Kesha lays the album’s mission statement bare in the LP’s opening moments.
“Been underestimated / My entire life,” she continues in the second verse before declaring “They won’t break my spirit / I won’t let ’em win,” encouraging listeners not to “let the bastards get you down.” It’s a simple message, but one that carries the weight of the world within the story of Kesha Rose Sebert. After languishing in a grim legal battle for the last several years with former producer and mentor Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, who according to the singer/songwriter also sexually and emotionally abused her throughout her career, Rainbow is more than just a comeback album, it’s a musical and personal rebirth.
General listeners know Kesha (formally stylized Ke$ha) for her messy yet authentic pop anthems from the early 2010’s. “TiK ToK,” detailed a night out with lyrics like “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” and Ain’t got a care in the world but got plenty of beer / Ain’t got no money in my pocket but I’m already here.” Her debut album Animal and it’s follow up EP Cannibal provided the radio and listeners with tons of these fun, unmistakably Kesha-esque songs, each outfitted with her own glittery fingerprint that made her such a force to be reckoned with alongside other pop acts such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyoncé.
Fast forward through the turmoil and court cases. With the release of “Praying,” the lead single from Rainbow, it was clear that her mind was worlds away from the parties that inspired fan favorites like “Dinosaur,” “Blow” and “C’Mon.” Co-written and produced by Ryan Lewis, the song features an incendiary vocal performance by Kesha; you can hear the pain and anguish in each lyric, especially as she dips into her lower register to address her abuser. “We both know the truth I can tell…When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name” she warns, but ultimately takes the higher road urging him to find peace and healing. Songs like “The Harold Song” and “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” suggested the emotional depth and lyrical prowess that Kesha was capable of, but here, free of auto-tune, it’s impossible to shake the song’s power. It might’ve been a risky choice to release a power ballad as your lead single to your first release in several years, but it’s quite a statement. “The best is yet to come,” she promises.
On Rainbow, Kesha delivers upon her promise, and then some; the singer’s deep admiration for music. “Learn to Let Go,” a cathartic kiss off to bitterness and the boogiemen living under her bed, is an anthemic sized pop song with solid work behind the scenes from producer Ricky Reed. “Baby, I love you so much / Don’t make me kill you,” she purrs on the June Carter-Cash influenced “Hunt You Down.” She channels Joan Jett on “Let ‘Em Talk” alongside the Eagles of Death Metal before switching things up to the horn heavy “Woman” with the The Dap-Horned Kings. And then there’s Dolly Parton, who joins Kesha on a cover of her song “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle to You)” which was written by Kesha’s mother Pebe Sebert. “Boots,” a song that demands to be a single at some point, feels like it would’ve been right at home on Animal or Warrior minus the auto-tune that bogged down those earlier records.
Rainbow could’ve failed under the weight of all the different musical styles Kesha is trying on for size, but ultimately succeeds through the strength of Kesha’s vocal performance and songwriting talent, the innate joy that she’s finally making the music she was previously denied from making and that the overall product is great. Instead of completely tossing out what made everyone fall in love with her in the first place as a way of showcasing her “authenticity” as a singer/songwriter, she’s simply added a few new tools to her belt and sought out some not so obvious collaborators. Though some may be surprised at first to hear the folk and country-tinged influences that run throughout Rainbow, I’d advise them to remember that not only did Kesha grow up in Nashville, but to remember this sound on songs like “Timber” (which Kesha’s mother helped co-write). Additionally, it was Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” that Kesha chose to perform last year’s Billboard Music Awards, her first televised performance in years. She had been boxed in musically and professionally for so long, it’s great to hear her not just be able to explore new sounds, but excel at it.
On the album’s title track, Kesha likens her newfound freedom to finding a rainbow after a dark and howling storm. Written in rehab with just a toy keyboard and some broken headphones, the song’s lush arrangement swells into a battle cry for those who may still be looking for their own rainbows. “You gotta learn to let go, put the past behind you / trust me, I know, those ghosts will try to find you / But just put those colors on, girl / Come and paint the world with me tonight,” she urges.
It was the song that kickstarted the process of creating Rainbow, so it’s a no brainer why it also became the album title. If there’s one other song that encapsulates the vibrant hues and deep, unapologetic Kesha-ness of this album, it’s “Spaceship,” the final track which promises an intergalactic rescue mission to take Kesha home. “I’m nothing more than recycled stardust and borrowed energy, born from a rock, spinning in the ether. I watch my life backwards and forwards and I feel free. Nothing is real, love is everything, and I know nothing,” she declares as we hear an unintelligible engine firing up. Whether or not you believe there are aliens coming to take Kesha back to her true home planet, one thing that’s not up for debate is that she’s back in the world of music, doing what she’s always done. Only this time, it’s on her own terms.
***Essential Tracks: Bastards, Hunt You Down, Boots, Spaceship***