In early 2017, amid news of Kesha’s legal battle to extricate herself from the contract that bound her to the producer she had accused of sexual assault, the same image kept resurfacing in my mind over and over: that of Britney Spears with a half-shaved head, staring off into the middle distance.
Kesha is not Britney, and vice versa, but the widely shared picture of Kesha in the courtroom, her face crumpled in grief, on the day that her request for an injunction that would have temporarily lifted her contract with Sony was denied by a Manhattan judge was the same kind of moment. All of the industry artifice, all of the production value, all of the money and leveraging that had gone into making these women consumer products had been stripped away. For Kesha, as for Britney, once a pop star shows their true humanity in that fashion, and once TMZ gets hold of it, there is no going back.
Here, then, on Rainbow, Kesha’s first album in five years, is the stuff that’s under the former tireless party-girl shtick, the cowboy boots and pantslessness, the lyrics delivered in a bratty, almost spoken snarl. Is Rainbow actually any good? Yes, in fact. Kesha knows exactly what she’s doing here, and Rainbow is very, very good.
There’s her voice, for one thing. It’s new. Well, not entirely — it made its debut at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, when Kesha covered Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, committing to its delivery in a way that the ironic persona of Ke$ha had never let her commit to anything. Ben Folds backed her up on keys on that performance, and his light touch is all over Rainbow, too; the arrangement of the titular track, the orchestral swells, are his doing. He had the connections and the experience to make them happen. The vision for the song in its most basic form, however, which Kesha has said was written on a toy piano when she was hospitalized for an eating disorder that resulted from the strain of her professional relationship with Dr. Luke, is all hers. It unfurls like it’s blooming, starting mellow and minimalistic before culminating in a full string arrangement. It’s a lush, generous, and bighearted song, in a way that much of the rest of the album feels generous and bighearted. This is part of her own healing, yes, but she wants you to heal, too. I’m not too proud to say that “Rainbow” brought me to tears, even after repeated listens. No other song in recent memory so perfectly embodies the way in which hope itself is a kind of triumph.
Rainbow, as a comprehensive work, feels much more organic and of this earth than anything by dollar-sign Ke$ha. There’s a strong, organic rock and country influence that places her much more firmly in a lineage, a tradition, instead of the weird, airless, EDM-influenced vacuum that she inhabited on songs like the title track of 2012’s Warrior and hits like “Blow”. Rainbow’s “Hunt You Down” is a brisk country tune with warm instrumentation that serves as a warning to a lover: “Just know that if you fuck around,” she sings sweetly, “Boy, I’ll hunt you down.” “Woman” is an exuberant party song, and backed by the perfection of the Dap-Kings’ horns, Kesha sounds invincible.
The album’s only flaw is that, at times, it can feel a little bloated. Songs like “Hymn” reiterate the rest of the album’s themes to no greater end, and things start to plod a few tracks in. They pick back up with “Praying”, a ballad about forgiveness that feels almost ruthless in its commitment to vulnerability.
Rainbow, it should be noted, is weird in a way that doesn’t feel calculated or contrived. For every pop gem like “Learn to Let Go”, a strong contender for heavy rotation on Top 40 radio, there is a “Godzilla”, which feels like a goofy jam session that got some souped-up instrumentation and made the album cut. Even as Kesha sings about bringing Godzilla home to meet her mother, though, it feels easy. It feels honest. It feels like it’s exactly what she wants to be singing.
They say that the best revenge is living well, and there’s no doubt that this could be a much darker album than it is. The experiences that engendered it — sexual assault, emotional abuse, an eating disorder — are things that would make other artists turn inward, make them brood. Kesha doesn’t choose that route here. The biggest lesson of Rainbow should be that our days of underestimating the ambitions and abilities of Kesha Rose Sebert are over.
Essential Tracks: “Rainbow”, “Hunt You Down”, and “Godzilla”