Kesha returned in full force Friday with a playful country flair, showcasing a range of genres that is refreshingly folksy and genuine.
“Rainbow,” Kesha’s third studio album and first in five years, comes amid the singer’s legal battle with Dr. Luke. The 14-track set isn’t designed for fans of the party-hard, bass-thumping style that has defined Kesha’s career thus far. Instead, it’s a more honest Kesha showing the world her musical creativity – meandering a bit, but with authenticity.
This album isn’t for the charts, lacking radio hits beyond “Praying” – a soaring single that acts as a statement of defiance and maturity. The closest “Rainbow” comes to her previous sound is in its singles, like in boppy “Learn to Let Go” and “Hymn.”
The singer, sans dollar sign, will disappoint fans who simply want the Ke$ha synth they once knew. But there will still be opportunities to dance. Just get your cowboy boots first.
Pebe Sebert, Kesha’s mother and longtime country songwriter, co-produced the album and helped steer her daughter back to the family’s Nashville roots. “Hunt You Down,” the ninth song on the album, is a banjo-strumming tune that will have listeners looking for the local square dance. Kesha careens through “Boots,” a sex-filled country anthem that layers funky lyrics over a heavy bass and the occasional whip crack.
In the ultimate nod to her mother, Kesha teams up with Dolly Parton toward the end of the album for a rendition of “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle to You).” Sebert wrote the country song in the late 1970s, and Parton covered it to chart-topping success on her 1980 “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly” album.
Though the song would feel out of place on any other Kesha album, the cover fits into the overall feel of “Rainbow,” a sweet embrace of her musical upbringing.
Calling this a country album is disingenuous, though. Kesha and rock band Eagles of Death Metal produce a sound reminiscent of early 2000s punk in two of the songs. “Let ‘Em Talk” is a fast-paced dancing tune about letting go, and “Boogie Feet” is lighthearted, almost Avril Lavigne-inspired.
The rock influence nicely diversifies the album’s offerings, but can feel a bit off-kilter when paired with folksy songs like “Finding You,” which blends playful guitar sequences and Kesha’s melodic vocals into a mystical love song.
Memorably, “Woman” stands out as a catchy anthem of female empowerment. “Rainbow,” the title track, is a personal anthem for the singer; something she wrote while in rehab. Instrumental depth boosts both songs: The Dap-Kings Horns on the former, and an orchestral ensemble on the latter.
On her title track, Kesha opens up about letting go and finding inspiration: “You’ll find a rainbow, rainbow, baby / Trust me, I know life is scary / But just put those colors on, girl.”
But not everything hits. “Spaceship” and “Godzilla” are quirky, while “Bastards” opens the album with a country-tinged middle finger to the world, but none of the three add much substance musically.
“Rainbow” ultimately represents a new chapter for Kesha, one with plenty of studio banter and laughter sprinkled throughout. It’s a reset button for a career that many had defined as trashy pop music.
Kesha has hinted at her chops in the past, offering songs such as “Wonderland” and “The Harold Song” to slow down previous albums, although earlier songs now sound overproduced and heavy in comparison to anything on “Rainbow.”
The album’s clashing sounds – folk, country, punk, defiant anthems and galactic ballads alike – seem purposefully diverse, but could be cleaned up. In the end, Kesha has set new expectations for her sound, and has room to grow as she sees fit.
And growth has never been more important in Kesha’s career than with this release.
In her 2012 album “Warrior,” the singer smoothly sang to the world about her flaws: “I know I’m not perfect / I know I got issues.” This time around, in “Hymn,” Kesha confidently chants: “I know that I’m perfect / even though I’m fucked up.”
“Rainbow” isn’t perfect, but it’s warm, raw and full of emotion – a new direction that Kesha fans should embrace.