It’s not controversial to say that Kesha is one of the pop industry’s most versatile chameleons — after two albums putting on a sleazy, party-girl electro persona, she sued longtime music producer Dr. Luke for sexual abuse, assault, and a litany of other issues regarding control in her music. In a heartbreaking decision, she lost, and 2017’s pop-rock Rainbow saw Kesha coming to terms with her predicament, even wishing the best for Luke on one of her best songs yet, “Praying.” All seemed healed, when she released 2020’s High Road, the closest thing to her original pop roots, it seemed she could go back to having fun and making music designed to uplift.
Her latest release, Gag Order, seems to retract that idea — the record is a sparse, eccentric collection of 13 tracks documenting Kesha’s mental state, how the public treated her in the past few years, and the enduring effects of Luke’s abuse. “I’ve been hiding my anger, but bitch, look at me now,” she proclaims on “Fine Line.” Lead single “Eat the Acid” is a haunting, liminal electro track that builds in suspense and intensity while repeating the refrain, “You don’t wanna be changed like it changed me.” Tracks like “Living In My Head” or the bizarrely but enticingly produced “The Drama,” reckon with subdued and depressed headspaces: “I desperately wanna think people are good / But if you’d seen the things I’ve seen, I don’t know if you would,” she admits.
Whereas Gag Order confronts her past head-on and emerges stronger, like on “Peace & Quiet” where she sings “Loving me is running into a house that’s burning down … So get into it or get the fuck out”, there are places that are genuinely tough to listen to, where it feels like Kesha wrote them at her lowest. She admits that “Sometimes I add up all my wasted time” on the spare ballad “Too Far Gone”: “Think I killed the part of me I like.” “Hate Me Harder” embraces the media or random people mocking her, but there’s a tint of despair to it: “Luckily, the joke’s on you / I got nothing else to prove.” The closing track, “Happy”, takes a look at her life and says that from the outside, this is all she’s ever wanted, but if you ask her now, she just wants to be happy. “Time’s passing me by / Gotta just laugh so I don’t die.”
There’s only one song on the album that could qualify as a banger — “Only Love Can Save Us Now” reaches the heights of what she did on High Road, and even on her earlier work. Performed like a diss track (with a clever typewriter effect after each line), it reignites her faith even after what she’s been through, calling on God to give his love. Paired with typically funny Kesha lines (“I’m getting sued because my mama’s been tweetin’”) and a powerful chorus to close it out, it’s definitely the album’s climax. Other places, like “Something to Believe In”, while not as momentous, are just as powerful — her odd vocal delivery on lines like “Ego just a face of sadness / Pain is just part of the package” goes well with the song’s gritty, blaring bass. “All I Need Is You” is a lovely ode to her cat, who had a health scare last year — “Tell me that you’ll live forever, she pleads.”
Along the way on the album though, are odd stylistic choices that feel like they’re trying to add up to something, but usually end up muddying the success of the record. “The Drama” ends with multiple iterations of Kesha’s voice, singing that in the next life, she wants to come back as a cat. Not to invalidate or discredit her struggles with OCD and anxiety, but the lyrical content of “Living In My Head” feels like it could come from any teen’s diary, and the backing vocals don’t necessarily make it an intriguing listening experience. The two interludes, the first of which asking “Do you like me? Do you approve of me?” over and over, also aren’t show-stopping moments.
Gag Order is a hard listen. Whether it’s with songs that are genuinely discomforting sonically in a good way (“Eat The Acid”) or in a bad way (“Living In My Head”), or lyrically where she delves into the depths of her mind, the record is the most introspective work she’s ever put out. It takes focus to get into her new alt-pop foundations of music, and the result is some of her best and most alluring writing. Though spots of brightness and strength peek out, like when she says “I refuse to be jaded / Still painting rainbows all over my face,” the mood is constantly heavy. The image of pop’s feel-good girl changed shockingly with the Dr. Luke trial, and it makes sense that her music reflects this turmoil — “I can be the soundtrack and the punchline to the story,” she sings about her career. Gag Order is a discombobulating new direction for Kesha, but it’s clearly what maps closest to her mental state at this point in her career.
order Gag Order by Kesha HERE
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