Sunday, August 13, 2017

album review: 'rainbow' by kesha

Man, it's nice to talk about the music for once, isn't it? Hell, it's nice that there actually is music this time, right? And indeed, there was a part of me that deep down was convinced this record would never happen, that the horrendous legal nightmare and label drama would prevent us from ever getting a third record from Kesha, but now that it has actually been released, I think there's some housecleaning that's in order, especially surrounding how so many would love to say they've been on Kesha's side since the beginning and have always loved her work, that Animal was underappreciated for its time and that Cannibal was even better and that Warrior never got the chance it deserved...

And it's at this point where I have to drop the hard stop on music critic historical revisionism, because while the mainstream public might not have been paying close attention, I sure as hell was - mostly because of my own more complicated relationship with Kesha's music. I'll be the first to admit that I didn't like the singles from Animal back in 2010 and I found her entire persona kind of obnoxious, and it wasn't until a year later when I went into that album and Cannibal in-depth - and while I will say both are more uneven than you remember, there were the hints of satirical depth, lyrical nuance and genuine pipes that for some reason Kesha's handlers didn't think the mainstream public wanted to hear. That takes us to Warrior in 2012, a record with a notoriously troubled production and was arguably crippled out of the gate thanks to sloppy promotion and horrible single choices - watch the Special Comments, I've touched on this before - but it was also the sign that Kesha was bucking against her producers and label more than ever, and that Warrior still wound up as one of my favourite records of 2012 is a testament to its craftsmanship and personality. But the public and the majority of critics didn't see that, instead focusing on the one-dimensional party girl treading water who needed a horrible guest verse from to seem relevant. And to see a lot of folks now retroactively getting onboard given the legal ordeal and a desire to be seen on the right side of music history without knowing the artistic variety and depths and incredible live show that were in plain sight all along if they had bothered to look - it reeked of cheap revisionist cynicism, especially when it seemed like, again, the music was getting pushed out of the picture.

But again, the album is finally here, and if I'm going to be very honest, I was optimistic but cautious about this record. I was all for Kesha taking a greater lead in writing and production, pushing her sound into even weirder and rougher territory leaning on rock and country, but I was worried the 'redemptive comeback' story would overwhelm the weirder elements in composition and songwriting that I've always found to be one of Kesha's best weapons. But then again, if anyone has earned the right to make a record focused on that redemptive arc it's Kesha, and she's a smart enough songwriter to challenge conventions and expectations, so at the end of the day what did we find on Rainbow?

Honestly, I get the feeling this is the sort of record that Kesha had to make at this point in her career, addressing both her comeback to the spotlight, showcase the talent that the mainstream public may not know about in the same way, and placate label bosses that need to be convinced Kesha can work with more producers and that her sound has legs. By necessity this record is going to be transitional, especially given that it has been five years since Warrior, and most of the issues I have with it fall in that category. That said, this is a great pop record - rough around the edges, sure, and I don't think overall it's as cohesive or punchy as Warrior was, but again, I'm pretty forgiving of that because of so many lines that Kesha had to toe to make this record at all.

So let's start with her - and goddamn it, it is so refreshing to have Kesha back as a presence in pop music right now. Most mainstream pop is so obsessed with stiff, monochromatic sounds and trap snares and taking themselves way too seriously that Kesha's loose exuberance and boundless charisma is incredibly refreshing. What's more, none of it feels forced - this record is going to get a lot of comparisons to Lady Gaga's Joanne, but while Gaga is an impressive presence and singer in her own right, Kesha's looser, more organic style doesn't succumb to the stiffer theatricality that undercut the rock and country leanings of that album. Of course, there are points where Kesha can get a tad too sloppy - I'm still not crazy about how the second verse of 'Woman' kind of falls apart - but much of that is redeemed by the fact that she actually sounds like she enjoys making pop music, and her natural expressiveness makes a lot of these songs really infectious!

But of course, the big conversation has sparked up around the production, because while it does make sense as a progression from Warrior, it is a very different tone than what many will expect from her singles. For one, the Autotune is cranked back considerably, and you can tell that it was always a stylistic choice, but unfortunately that also means the vocal production isn't always consistent, especially on the tracks with Eagles Of Death Metal, where she can sound a tad tinny especially opposite their deeper baritone. Now this was inevitable - there are a lot of producers brought in, from pop staples like Ricky Reed and Drew Pearson to Ryan Lewis and Ben Folds - and the fact that Kesha is blazing through genres did mean that there was naturally going to be different sounds, but I do wish as a whole the record landed on a consistent rougher edge a bit more. And that's mostly because this record makes it abundantly clear Kesha is at her best in punk rock, freak folk and indie country, where it flatters her irreverent attitude most. Unfortunately she does have to split the difference on more pop-leaning tracks, which leaves cuts like the synth swells of 'Hymn' to feel a little flat, but then again, not all the rest of the experimentation works either. I've already talked about my issues with 'Woman' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but I can't say I entirely loved the acoustic 'Finding You' either, mostly because the very prominent bass groove and sharper drums feel more developed and the hook doesn't quite pay off the buildup, and while I loved the textures and multi-tracking of the psychedelic country on 'Spaceship', it might run a tad long, and Kesha has ended records with stronger, weirder stuff. And again, this isn't saying that Kesha can't do pop well - 'Learn To Let Go' has only grown on me with more listens, 'Praying' was always an excellent track, and the cleaner tones of 'Rainbow' courtesy of Ben Folds are pretty nice, and the transition from acoustic folk to pop bombast on 'Bastards' stuck the landing well. But I'll be honest, the songs I love the most here are those going straight for other genres from the buzzy charging riff that anchors 'Let Em Talk', the bratty noise of 'Boogie Feet', to the ridiculous but kind of adorable acoustic ballad 'Godzilla', to a set of three country cuts that are among her best. Of course you're going to get a pretty great cover and collaboration with Dolly Parton on 'Old Flames Can't Hold A Candle To You' - I knew from Deconstructed that Kesha would knock this out of the park - but then you get 'Boots' with its phenomenal galloping groove, whipcracks, and darker guitar line, or 'Hunt You Down' that might as well sound like a cut Angaleena Presley would have dropped this year with the smokier tones, or something that Brandy Clark would have put out on her last record - and as I've said a number of times, Kesha seems to understand a country sound better than the vast majority of guys gunning for success on mainstream country radio!

But again, where I was most concerned on this record was the lyrics and writing... and for the most part my fears were put to rest. Again, Kesha's writing style is a bit of an acquired taste - her casual profanity, gender-twisted insults, quirky details, and balance between coy crassness and sincerity gives her the sort of personality that so many modern pop starlets would kill for - but again, it's a distinctive voice that I happen to like. And while the recovery and redemptive arc does take up a considerable portion of this record, it does not dominate it and Kesha shows many sides of it, from the straightforward self-esteem anthem territory of 'Bastards' and the title track to the kiss-off of 'Let 'Em Talk' to the more pointed recovery and reconciliation that comes on 'Praying' and 'Learn To Let Go'. And yet beyond that, Kesha writes some pretty fascinating love songs, between the borderline possessive-stalker side of 'Hunt You Down' to the exasperated naked sexuality of the hookup on 'Boots' to 'Godzilla', which is a surprisingly tender song about falling in love with the titular character. And yes, it's ridiculous, but at the same time between the little details and Kesha's delivery it feels kind of sweet, to the point where I wish songs like 'Finding You' have a bit more of that distinct detail. Similar case for 'Woman', but then you have the flip side where the detail is specific to the point of oddity, like with the Pepsi reference on 'Boogie Feet' or some of the callouts on 'Hymn' - and yes, I like that Kesha's anthems are full of the sort of relatable details to her following instead of blatant luxury porn, but at the same time I've heard Kesha make plenty of songs in the vein of 'Hymn' before, and this is not her strongest. Then we have 'Spaceship'... and yeah, I'm forgiving of a lot in psychedelic writing, but the exit via outer space is a transcendence moment that doesn't really fit with the arc of the album - not a bad song, but she's made better closers.

But as a whole, if you can't tell by now I was rooting for this record, and I'm quite happy with how it turned out. For Kesha's diehard fans this will be the natural evolution that'll definitely satisfy, but I can see this album convincing those put off by the seemingly one-dimensional bratty party girl that came through on her big singles, along with a bunch of critics who are just looking for the right excuse to not call her a guilty pleasure anymore. In terms of chart success, I think this is about the best thing Kesha could have released while naturally expanding her sound, and while I'm not sure how many singles this'll generate beyond 'Praying', it'll certainly move enough album units to ensure creative flexibility going forward. And for me... again, I'm not quite sure it's better than Warrior in my books, that record had some of her best ever earworms and handled the genre-blending a tad better, but Rainbow is still pretty terrific, netting a solid 8/10 from me and an easy recommendation. Kesha... welcome back to the party, and I can't tell you how much pop has missed you.

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