Photo Credit: Vincent Haycock
Since Kesha sued Dr. Luke in 2014, her reputation has shifted from that of the party girl of pop to the genre’s survivor. In the near-decade that’s ensued, she’s alternately embraced and run away from that title; on 2017’s “Praying,” she offered a direct rebuke to her former producer in the form of a power ballad tour-de-force. While with 2020’s High Road, she tried to dance away the pain – suggesting that fun could be revolutionary too.
On her newest offering, Gag Order, Kesha pens her most incisive album-length meditation on her legal battles and the chaos that has ensued. It alternately treats being alive as tortuous and wondrous – on “Living in My Head,” she repeatedly cries “When’s it gonna end?” with claustrophobia-inducing intensity, while on opener “Something to Believe In,” she triumphantly declares, “I can’t believe I’m still alive.” Sometimes, these dueling states directly come to a head, like on the standout “Eat the Acid,” where ominous repetitions of “You don’t want to be changed like it changed me” are punctuated by moments of revelation (“I saw the light…Hate has no place in the divine”).
Gag Order has correctly been labeled by many as Kesha’s most experimental album. It’s evident in the various spoken word interludes courtesy of spiritual leaders, the Ramones-sampling, arcade-sounding “The Drama” and, the glitchy electronics of “Peace and Quiet,” which recall Charli XCX’s most daring output. Yet, at the same time, no previous Kesha album has prioritized messaging over sonics in the way Gag Order does – with many tracks using barebones beats and synths to backdrop Kesha’s personal reflections. The starkest example of this is the joint-lead single “Fine Line,” which utilizes little more than a sparse and sinister synth line to boost Kesha’s righteous anger at her treatment by those around her (“All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue outta my mouth”).
Moments like “Fine Line” demonstrate what’s most impressive and most beguiling about Gag Order. It’s a powerful, vulnerable, resolute and genuinely affecting musical statement, but one without a huge number of earworm choruses, infectious refrains, and latchable melodies. Understandably, it often feels as though it was written solely for personal catharsis, with the listener’s enjoyment left a secondary priority. As a result, your level of interest in Kesha’s personal life and legal battles is likely to determine your enjoyment of her fifth studio album.
Gag Order’s most thrilling moments prove to be its weirdest – the chilling, distorted refrain of “Eat the Acid” is genuinely haunting, while the “Ram Dass Interlude” proves the only essential spoken word interlude because of the way the stacked vocals subvert the spiritual leader’s words into something almost sinister and cult-like. Outside of these few choice cuts, however, I’m often left wishing Gag Order was even wilder and weirder – devoid of the mainstream polish courtesy of Rick Rubin and the LP’s other half-a-dozen co-producers. In particular, I think of how rewarding it would be to hear Kesha take inspiration from a song like Indigo De Souza’s “Real Pain” – a song where growing tension culminates into a frantic moment of unbridled screams and harsh noise, before returning to melodic power-pop.
There’s one song on Gag Order that really turns the chaos up to ten, and it’s all the better for it. “Only Love Can Save Us Now” begins with a heavy industrial, typewriter-style beat that recalls Death Grips – with Kesha complementing the sound with bratty sing-speak rapping that recalls her early hits. Suddenly, a gospel choir chorus takes over – hand claps and all – as Kesha utilizes her powerhouse vocals to repeat the titular phrase. Later, in the song, Kesha reflects on the absurdities of the lawsuits made against her – in particular, being sued for her mother’s tweets. The music cuts out as she shouts, barely in control of her own voice, “Don’t f*cking tell me that I’m dealing with reason.” It’s Gag Order’s most compelling moment because it’s one of the relatively few moments where intense lyrical catharsis is paired with a similarly intense and bracing sound.