“This is where you f***ers pushed me/ Don’t be surprised if s*** gets ugly,” warns Kesha on her fifth album, Gag Order. “All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue out of my mouth,” she sings over the warped piano chords of “Fine Line”. “I’ve been hidin’ my anger but b**** look at me now/ I’m at the top of the mountain with a gun to my head.”
This will be the final album that the 36-year-old pop star releases under contract to Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald’s former label Kemosabe Records. A contract she signed when she was 18. She’s since alleged that, over a decade, Dr Luke “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her “to the point where [she] nearly lost her life”. In 2016, Kesha lost a court battle to be released from that contract. The judge dismissed the case, saying that even if the allegations of sexual assault were accepted as true, the five-year statute of limitations had run out on the two most specific rape accusations, which related to incidents the singer claimed had occurred in 2005 and 2008. Now Dr Luke is countersuing for defamation. He is no longer head honcho at Kemosabe, but will still profit from this record because of the original deals Kesha signed with his publishing company. It’s a grim fact that leaves fans with a dilemma over paying for this music. (Maybe Kesha should set up a separate GoFundMe page so they can remunerate her without giving Dr Luke a cut.)
Although Kesha’s trauma squirms all the way through this fascinating snakes’ nest of trippy electronic songs, “Fine Line” is the closest she comes to directly addressing the situation, with words that will resonate with all survivors. “I feel safest in the silence,” she says, “And I’m so sick of fighting/ The truth keeps roaring like a lion ... Some things should never be forgiven.”
The music takes a back seat to the statement of “Fine Line”. But Gag Order comes loaded with deliciously weird and compellingly urgent hooks. Legendary producer Rick Rubin – reliably getting to the bones of things – encouraged Kesha to dig deep and strip thoughts down. He brings an elevating gospel-bluesy vibe to the stomp-squelch beats of “Only Love Can Save Us Now” and “Something to Believe”. Meanwhile, Kesha’s vocals fly a straight, laser-focused path through the sweetly curving path of the melody. Against the throbbing synth of “Eat the Acid”, Rubin weaves the voice notes she sent to him into the finished track, splitting her voice into a vocodered prism for the incantation: “You don’t wanna be changed like it changed me.”
Kesha has clearly enjoyed dialling up the oddness. The queasy arcade-game grind of “The Drama” (punctuated by masochistic shouts of “Are we having fun yet?”) ends with Kesha finding her inner Andrews Sister for a pop-soxy fade-out refrain of “I guess I wanna come back as a house cat.” The reprise of “Only Love” is a twilight chirruping of Peruvian flute, over which Kesha announces a yearning to sing “in technicolour”. A vintage German psychotherapist – think Peter Sellers covering The Beatles’ “She Loves You” – pops up to introduce the organ-backed “All You Need Is You”.
More conventional is the pretty acoustic guitar of “Living in My Head”, on which lacy finger-picking and delicate harmonies belie a disturbing message of self-hatred: “Don’t wanna be here any more.” The anger is flipped outward again on hushed piano ballad “Hate Me Harder” as Kesha appears to address Dr Luke, singing: “You say I’m a has-been/ You say I look older/ Nobody was asking/ Luckily the joke’s on you.” If Gag Order is anything to go by, Kesha’s career is far from over. I’d say she’s only just getting started on a thrilling second act.