After several years out of the spotlight due to a tragic legal and personal entanglement that brought on an outpouring of public sympathy even from those who had hated her previous work, expectations were high for Kesha’s fourth album (or third, I suppose, depending on if you count the Cannibal EP as a full album in itself). After all, her 2012 effort Warrior had already been a massive leap ahead of her often disastrous first two releases, and after such a deep and tragic personal struggle, everyone was on the edge of their seats wondering what she was going to release.
And yet, in spite of all this hype, the resulting album still managed to exceed everyone’s expectations. This is, in all seriousness, one of the greatest albums of the entire 2010s…and I’m not talking Top 100; I’m talking Top Ten. This is 2017’s equivalent of Adele’s 21 in 2011, Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, and Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016.
As others have pointed out before me, it might well come across as insensitive to say anything negative about such an incredibly personal and vulnerable work…Kesha herself openly admitted that this album “saved her life”, after all. Fortunately, though, that’s not really a problem in this particular case, since this album is empirically perfect anyway.
The lead single, the monumentally moving Gospel power ballad “Praying”, with its intensely personal lyrics and anguished intensity, set the expectations for this album’s content, but while there is plenty of honest singer-songwriter introspection on display here, this album is far more varied than one might expect from the lead single alone. Even the heavier, more serious songs have an impressive variety of tone…for example, the first track, “Bastards”, marries a tranquil, almost gentle melody to an enraged, profane lyric, providing a perfect tone-setting opening. Meanwhile, the breathtakingly beautiful title-song expresses a message of hope in indescribably gentle and tender melody, and the forcibly carefree “Learn to Let Go” talks about letting go of pain of the past in music that sounds like it actually means it.
The second song to be released from the album, “Woman”, with its explicit, defiant lyrics and a distinctive sound courtesy of the Dap-King Horns on backup, is perhaps the most ferocious feminist anthem in all of Pop music. This song is presumably what Kesha was trying to achieve on most of her first two releases, but whether due to her personal and artistic growth or the absence of Dr. Luke’s influence, it manages to succeed where those songs failed.
Similarly, the outsiders’ anthem “Hymn” is essentially a much more effective take on the model used on her earlier single “We R Who We R”. While that song was one of the more listenable items on the Cannibal EP, it failed to convince as the inspirational anthem it was supposedly meant to be, coming off as little more than a standard-issue club song. “Hymn”, on the other hand, thanks to its beautifully honest and heartfelt lyrics, genuinely comes across as a message of hope and inclusion for the outcasts and rejects of society with whom Kesha identifies, and I could see it providing great comfort to a whole generation of adolescents who feel like they don’t belong.
Interestingly, this album focuses so much on relatively unconventional subject matter for Pop music that there are only two straightforward, conventional love songs on the entire record. That said, they’re damned good ones…the glowing “Finding You” and the smolderingly sexy “Boots”.
To counterbalance all this heavy seriousness, the album features a couple of splendid comic novelties. “Hunt You Down” is a warning to a newly committed lover, half love-song, half death threat (‘Baby, I love you so much…don’t make me kill you’). Even funnier is “Godzilla”…and yes, this song is literally about what it’s like to date Godzilla, as in the giant fire-breathing dinosaur from the movie franchise. Okay, it’s probably meant to be metaphorical on some level, but the humor comes from the sheer insanity of the chosen metaphor and the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s presented. The result is both hilarious and surprisingly adorable.
The album has as much variety in its musical influences as it does in tone. There are two outright Rock tracks, “Let ‘Em Talk” and “Boogie Feet” , both featuring the Eagles of Death Metal. (To clarify for those unfamiliar with that band, no, they are not a Death Metal act. Their name is a joke about their brand of moderately hard Boogie-Rock being about the midpoint between Seventies-era Soft Rock acts like the Eagles and a Death Metal band. It was at one of their concerts that the infamous Paris bombings of 2015 occurred, so they, too, are an act that also has some experience with tragedy, making them fitting partners for Kesha on this album).“Let ‘Em Talk”, which has a late-Nineties/early-2000s skater-punk vibe to it, is particularly irresistible in its high-flying, defiant cry of joy.
The album also draws quite a bit on Country influences…more authentic Country influences, in fact, than much of the actual Country genre has been known for in recent years. The aforementioned “Hunt You Down” sounds uncannily like a classic-era Johnny Cash song, while Kesha’s cover of Dolly Parton’s hit “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (which, incidentally, Kesha’s own mother co-wrote) even features Parton herself as a guest vocalist…and frankly, for all her undeniable status as a music legend, this is probably the best album Parton has ever appeared on.
Really, the album’s true greatness rests not only on its sincerity, beauty and emotional power, but on its perfect sense of balance. In the space of just fourteen songs, the album manages to contain multitudes…a whole universe of sorrow, anger, joy, laughter, turmoil and inner peace, and all of these elements are served up in perfect proportion. Even the other albums I named at the top of this review simply can’t compete with this one in terms of its perfection of construction, which may well make it the best out of all of them.
The album closes with a deeply profound song about life, death and spirituality entitled “Spaceship”. Another song featuring a Country-influenced sound, it applies a science-fiction metaphor to the idea of an afterlife and transcending the human experience. Even the other masterpieces I mentioned at the top of this article didn’t close out on a note this truthful and moving, and as the song fades out with a beautifully written spoken monologue, you almost can’t believe how far Kesha has come from the girl who introduced herself to the world with the words “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy”.
As wonderful as the album’s songs are, I’m not really all that surprised that none of them except “Praying” had much luck on the radio, since Kesha curses a blue streak on almost all of them, sometimes to the point where it would be enormously difficult to censor. To her credit, the profanity never comes across as gratuitous…it just seems to arise naturally out of the album’s ultra-intense feelings…but it still limited the success of these songs as individual “hits”. Then again, I get the feeling that was almost deliberate…this is definitely an album meant to be consumed whole, rather than chopped up into individual “hits”.
And indeed, the album as a whole wound up getting enough recognition to make that aspect virtually irrelevant. Indeed, it wound up becoming the musical emblem of the budding #MeToo political movement…and regardless of whether you agree with everything that movement has done, an album that plays a major role in launching cultural movement that significant has achieved about the greatest measure of its importance that you could reasonably conceive.
Granted, the “hitless hit album” was something of a phenomenon of the times in the late 2000s (and indeed, still is to some extent)…after all, Lemonade only produced two real hits to speak of, and it was still widely hailed as the best album of 2016. And make no mistake…Rainbow is the best album of 2017, and given that that year also gave us Taylor Swift’s Reputation, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, Ed Sheeran’s Divide, Lorde’s Melodrama, Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Jay-Z’s 4:44, SZA’s CTRL, Khalid’s American Teen, Logic’s Everybody, Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, Pink’s Beautiful Trauma, Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life, and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life (and even that is only a partial list of the masterpieces released in that year), that is not a statement I make lightly.