Practically every review for Kesha’s new album, Rainbow, will open with some sort of observation on the ongoing series of lawsuits involving the pop priestess and her former producer, Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, known by his professional alias of Dr. Luke, in which the former is accusing the latter of sexual assault and emotional abuse, whilst the latter is accusing the former of breach of contract and defamation. Needless to say, the sexual harassment charges levelled against Dr. Luke are undoubtedly integral to the overall tone of Kesha’s latest record at points, as was made clear by the album’s lead single, Praying, but personally, with these accusations having been made public knowledge around three years ago at this point, I would like to view Rainbow as an opportunity to finally talk about Kesha Rose Sebert as an artist and a musician, rather than a possible victim of sexual assault. Simply seeing Kesha’s name in the headlines of articles that are not at all connected to any legal drama is refreshing in and of itself, and with the singer seemingly using her new album to move on from the interminable disputes that have infiltrated the past three years of her life, focussing on the artistic evolution marked by Rainbow is far more important to me than the recent history of the musician’s juridical activities. Of course, despite this, even I couldn’t completely avoid passing comment on the thorny topic and, as previously stated, the mental burden that will have surely arrived with constantly being in the public eye regarding a sexual battery lawsuit has unequivocally acted as a catalyst for certain themes that appear at points throughout the tracklisting, but perhaps the most striking feature of Rainbow is just how absent the ramifications of these legal controversies are much of the time, with the overall spirit of the record being overwhelmingly positive, as Kesha explores themes of self-respect, self-determination and, most importantly, self-love. With this lyrical direction adding a much deeper substance to Kesha’s music compared to the club-friendly “cock pop” anthems for which she has become known, Rainbow also marks a diversified stylistic approach from the singer. Whilst genres such as rock and country have always imparted a great deal of influence on Kesha’s music, with her mother, Pebe Sebert, being a country singer-songwriter who has co-written songs with Dolly Parton, these stylistic touchstones have never been quite so pervasive as they are on the pop star’s latest project, with Eagles Of Death Metal lending a hand on the album’s two most potent rock tracks and with Parton herself making an appearance on the artist’s cover of Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You), a single from the country icon, co-written by Kesha’s mother. With numerous other genres, such as Southern soul, gospel and funk, also being placed alongside the songstress’ usual disco-infused synthpop stylings, Rainbow is unquestionably Kesha’s most varied release thus far, but as such, it runs the risk of lacking much in the way of consistency. Indeed, with the record being such a mixed bag of styles, it only makes sense that the overall song quality displayed across the tracklisting should also yield some vastly different results, with it typically being the pop-centred cuts that are missing the same strong melodic tones of some of the musician’s country-orientated pursuits, oddly enough. To anyone aware of Kesha’s musical background, this may not come as a surprise, and not solely because of her mother’s country career, but also because the strongest song from the artist’s obscure first demo came in the form of a beautifully poignant country ballad. This same compelling endearment is a sentiment that most definitely carries over onto the lyrical themes featured across Rainbow and also shines through during its most impressive musical moments, but for the new path that Kesha finds herself walking, there nevertheless exist some significant points of improvement to be made to her more refined sound.
A significant portion of Kesha’s artistic persona up until this point has related to her loud and exuberant charisma. Compared to her previous two records, however, wherein this boisterous character was undercut by a semblance of overkill that led to the artist’s personality coming off as somewhat obnoxious, Rainbow does a much better job of capturing a veneer of fun-loving charm that, across the album’s best moments, is undeniably infectious. Indeed, although it may be tempting, for example, to criticise the second verse of Woman, in which the singer’s performance devolves into some girlish giggling, to do so would almost be to miss the point of Rainbow entirely, with Kesha seemingly pursuing a sound that is so deliberately rough around the edges as to allow room for a much looser and freer sense of playfulness. It’s for this reason that even the simple, chugging chord progression on Let ‘Em Talk — the first of the two songs to feature instrumental contributions from Eagles Of Death Metal — over which the songstress delivers a borderline over-the-top performance that descends into discordant squealing at times, is made rather captivating simply by the fact that there’s a garage rock band quality to the song that completely counteracts the issues of overproduction that bogged down Kesha’s past projects. What’s more, it’s even hard to see how this sloppier disposition on a cut such as Let ‘Em Talk could upset the musician’s pre-established fanbase, as the sparkling synth lines and hook-heavy vocal melodies play towards the same territory as much of Animal and Warrior. Likewise, although the “fuck the haters” sentiment behind the song’s lyrics is hardly a new concept for an artist of Kesha’s ilk, especially with Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off still being in heavy rotation amongst mainstream pop radio stations three years after its initial release, it must be said that the unforgivingly wild performance brought to the table by the artist brings a heightened sense of urgency to this rather rudimentary pop topic. By this standard, Godzilla almost acts as a mirror image of Let ‘Em Talk, with the relatively middle-of-the-road, waltzing, acoustic guitar instrumental being supported by a perfectly pretty, but nevertheless rather run-of-the-mill, vocal performance from Kesha, which actually works quite well to highlight how strange the song topic is, with the singer spending a day with Godzilla at the mall and her house. In fact, the pairing of such a surreal lyrical subject with a subdued and elementary song structure and delivery provides a rather clever means of highlighting the message of self-acceptance and embracing individuality framed within the tales of Godzilla inadvertently destroying a shopping centre and scaring children, despite being “mostly tame”. It’s this same irresistible charm that makes the three country cuts from Rainbow so compelling, particularly the aforementioned collaboration with Dolly Parton on Kesha’s cover of Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You). Given that the singer had previously covered this very song on her Deconstructed EP from 2013, I was sceptical going into this track about whether or not a second rendition would be justified for any other reason than to bring Parton onto the song, but it stands as a far stronger version than Kesha’s first attempt, and in a way that was rather unexpected. With the original song being a gorgeously muted crooner of a ballad that gradually builds towards a heartrending climax, Kesha’s decision to open the track with a flurry of descending guitar lines and swirling pedal steel guitar is a bold one, but it pays off massively by bolstering the song’s already potent melodic tones to a gripping degree right from the onset. With Kesha and Parton’s performances capturing a palpable chemistry between the two singers — which can only come across as completely genuine, given the history of their relationship — as they weave between some finely worked vocal harmonies, this rendition of Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You) is as dynamic as it is refreshing, especially thanks to the sturdy guitar accents during the refrain that lead into the composition’s main melody incredibly fluidly. The same strong tunefulness is also apparent on the two original country cuts from Rainbow, but particularly on the shuffling groove of Hunt You Down, during which Kesha even manages to incorporate some subtle yodelling into her delivery that is worked in impressively fluently. Ultimately, what Rainbow truly succeeds in is capitalising on the melodic potency of previous Kesha records by applying her pervasive earworm-ery to a generally more compelling format, in which the songstress’ abilities as a performer and an entertainer are allowed to shine through more than at any point in her career previously.
With the overall tone of Rainbow stripping back much of the glitz and glamour of previous Kesha records in favour of a messier approach, there are, however, some significant portions across the album wherein this could be said to work against it. Although the idea of the pop star hanging up her sparkly stage costumes and instead throwing on a gravy-stained T-shirt is a compelling one when translated through the ebullient grit of a song such as Let ‘Em Talk, there are most definitely some consequential instances in which the album’s sloppiness trips it up in a big way. Whilst I have come around to appreciate the banter between Kesha and her colleagues at the beginning of Woman, which leads to her breaking down laughing during the second verse, as an appropriately amusing display of the high spirits of the singer across the record, other moments throughout the tracklisting are untidy in a less endearing fashion, but this is largely because it’s hard to tell whether their cursory nature was intentional or not. This is particularly a result of the new direction that Rainbow marks for Kesha in terms of the production, with the bevy of producers enlisted for the album, from Ryan Lewis to Ben Folds, all having to accommodate for the sweeping changes made to the artist’s style, such as the comprehensive cutbacks in auto-tune that can have a substantial bearing on Kesha’s performances. This is especially true of the more rock-driven cuts, wherein the low-end in the vocals loses the roundness and resonance of other points across the album. Boogie Feet, the second song to feature Eagles Of Death Metal, is one of the salient offenders in this regard, which is only worsened by how much the bass drum swallows up the mix during the chorus. This song also represents one of the most pronounced points from Rainbow during which Kesha’s attempts at capturing and conveying a sense of fun and buoyancy can come across as a little stilted, largely as a result of the fact that some of her more ambitious vocal trills don’t quite stick the landing, whilst the booming, Monster Mash-inspired male vocals during the post-chorus cross the line when it comes to corniness. It’s also rather telling that, with the prevailing tones of Rainbow being that much grittier than past Kesha projects, some of the tracks that hark back to the artist’s previous output prove to make for quite the awkward fit in the broader context of the tracklisting as a whole. This issue is arguably at its most prominent on Hymn, in which the synths don’t strike the sparkle of previous Kesha songs, rather they feel quite hollow against the sparser production value, which also emphasises the fact that the songstress’ vocals are at perhaps their least charismatic on this cut. Meanwhile, with Learn to Let Go seeking to sneak in a subtle semblance of country pop influence in its timbre, the production simply doesn’t allow room for this balance, with the plucky banjo melodies during the refrain being barely audible, and that’s not even getting into the extent to which they simply clash with the cut’s coruscating synths, to the point of merely sounding like a vague annoyance in the background, given how washed out they are by the mix. It’s a shame, too, that the strong, folksy acoustic melodies on Finding You are unfortunately overshadowed by the extent to which the bass and drums are placed towards the front of the mix, which also leads to the cut lacking in the dynamic range needed in order for the build-up to the refrain to yield the climactic results for which the song seems to be striving. With the cosmic country ballad of the closing track, Spaceship, being rather underwritten given its length and failing to finish the album off with a strong conclusion, much of Rainbow can feel undermined by some clumsy attempts at reconciling certain aspects of Kesha’s stylistic roots, which, at the worst of times, is exacerbated by some stiff production.
For the enhanced variation marked by Rainbow — not solely in a stylistic sense, but also in terms of Kesha’s performances and lyrical pursuits, as well as the album’s production — there are unquestionably some arrestingly impressive moments, during which the songstress fully embraces the rougher edge to the record’s tone and goes all out in terms of her exuberance and overall enthusiasm. As a result, many of the tracklisting’s best moments are those defined by Kesha’s tangible ardour for what she is attempting on this latest albums of hers, with the fun-loving nature of her previous output culminating in its most urgent and appreciable form of Rainbow. This being said, such a sentiment is prevented from permeating the entirety of the record due to the extent to which some flat production and haphazard stylistic detours disrupt the consistency of what could have been an airtight and comprehensive exploration of the musician’s artistic underpinnings. Even still, as someone who has found the majority of the artist’s past material rather obnoxious, it’s hard not to at least respect Rainbow as an admirably refined release from a pop star who has not been known for her ability to strike such a balance between subtlety and brashness in the past, and with further focus, future undertakings to bear this stamp of unmistakable effort, energy and enthusiasm could certainly elevate Kesha to a rather unique position within the mainstream pop world.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10