After five years, a plethora of legal battles, and rehab for an eating disorder, party-pop icon Kesha finally returned last week with a new album, and the lack of her dollar sign stylization isn’t the only thing that’s changed since 2012. Whether you’ve been listening since “TiK ToK” dropped or are new to her music, you’ll find that this album brings along her trademark energetic fun to the table among the expansion of her lesser-featured vulnerable side.
Many people’s inclination with Kesha’s revival is likely to see it as a brand-new rendition of the pop star, and that certainly crossed my mind after hearing the spine-chillingly beautiful lead single “Praying.” But the more I listen to Rainbow mixed in with her old work, the more I recognize that no matter how different it sounds from her past releases, it isn’t at all a sharply contrasting rebrand; it’s an evolution. Kesha’s still being herself, possibly more so than ever with the bold independence she strikes out to find in this latest endeavor, and that means producing some impressively good music.
Rainbow picks up with where Warrior left off in 2012, where her trademark synthpop was still king but she ventured into some new territory, with rock vibes peppered occasionally among carefree pop and a general tendency for more variety than her prior albums. Not only do the energetic rock vibes make a guest appearance again as Eagles of Death Metal join her on dance anthem “Boogie Feet” and devil-may-care jam “Let ‘Em Talk,” but on top of this and familiar pop vibes, Rainbow also sees Kesha getting more acoustic than ever and directly delving into the country influences she’s had from the start.That doesn’t keep her from maintaining that essential “Kesha” feeling to the music, regardless of genre. The anthemic, profanity-laden “Woman” may be jazzy, featuring The Dap-Kings Horns to supply that touch, but it’s the kind of song that begs to be belted out just the same as any of her partying singles, and it keeps with the vibe she’s been going for since the start, flipping the objectification of women on its head.
That crosses over into “Hunt You Down,” a track with outlaw country vibes that she said in an interview with NPR was inspired after she listened to an old country song in which a man spoke of shooting an unfaithful girlfriend. She opted to turn the narrative around, professing her love for a man while warning him what’ll happen if he crosses her. She takes the country vibes even further in a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” alongside Parton herself, proving her vocal mettle as she flawlessly accompanies Parton’s dulcet harmonizing.
At its core, though, Rainbow is an album of healing; it heals through perseverance and reclamation (“Learn To Let Go”), through carefree fun (“Boots”), and loving as Kesha ever has (“Finding You”), but it also strips down more than we’ve seen Kesha do in the past (in her full-length albums, at least) and goes beyond mere outcast anthems like Cannibal’s “We R Who We R” in its encouragement, like with the album’s opening acoustic ballad “Bastards.” Applied to a booming party beat, the song’s lyrics could have easily been a forceful call for justice, but instead it’s a gentle reassurance, as if Kesha herself is in front of you with an acoustic guitar, encouraging you specifically.
Meanwhile, the title track, written by Kesha in rehab, is a piano-driven song of inspiration in which she acknowledges the damage the past does while offering encouragement to weather the storm and find the rainbow that follows, insisting “Just put those colors on, girl / Come and paint the world with me tonight” as resonant strings gently bring the piece to a powerful peak.
Rainbow concludes much as it begins, with “Spaceship,” a soft ballad backed by mandolin, banjo, and guitar. It’s simultaneously a ballad of hope and pain; Kesha dreams of being whisked off to a calm life in space, but mourns in the second verse, “I knew from the start / I don’t belong in these parts / There’s too much hate / There’s too much hurt for this heart.” Nonetheless, it ultimately feels comfortable and reassuring as she closes the album vocalizing about the insignificance of life’s problems, speaking of freedom and love.
Certainly, Rainbow is the largest shift the pop singer has made thus far in her career; it’s a much different presentation of Kesha than we’ve seen before. But I can’t agree with shocked reactions that “Kesha’s good now,” nor with anyone who might disappointedly state that she’s not making fun pop music anymore. The album may have more of one thing or less of another than usual, but it bears the same clever lyricism, catchy beats, and carefree atmosphere that she’s always radiated, and it would be a mistake not to check it out and see the compositions this comeback has borne.