Just being alive and aware right now is emotionally exhausting.
The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend were just the culmination point so far of this horrible year of hatred. Every few days there has been some new outrage, some new affront to decency and humanity. Just keeping up with it all is taxing, never mind reacting to it. And no one is looking to a white guy with a music blog for a cogent reaction anyway. You want thoughts about this week’s new tunes, and all I can think about right now is Nazis marching on a U.S. city, and people defending them.
I don’t know a way to segue from this into frivolous music reviews without at least acknowledging the privilege that would allow me to do so. For the record, and with no “on many sides” false equivalences: the racism and hatred personified by Nazis is sickening, despicable and inexcusable – or, it should be for any reasonable person. These ideas aren’t new. This country’s history of racism runs much deeper than a statue could ever hope to symbolize, and it should be named, called out and resisted.
Which is emotionally exhausting stuff. And I’m coming at it from a place of privilege, so I can’t even imagine how tired my friends of color are right now, or how long they’ve been dealing with the realities I am only lately waking up to. I have always drawn strength from music, and writing this silly music column helps me to go on pushing through the muck. I’m going to keep on doing it even if it seems pointless, because it gives me the strength to show up elsewhere and speak up.
And really, it isn’t pointless. In fact, if you need a story of strength to draw inspiration from, I have one this week. It’s certainly been helping many of the women I know, and it surprised the hell out of me too.
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I have never really cared about Kesha.
Let me qualify that. I have never really cared about Kesha’s music. She burst into the public consciousness in 2010 with a synthetic, self-consciously annoying little record called Animal, and I heard the first two songs and wrote her off. It was Not My Thing. The dollar sign in her name, the obviously invented or exaggerated party girl image, the cheeseball synthesizers – the whole thing felt cheap to me, and I figured she’d be gone in a year or two. I never even heard her second, Warrior. There’s a lot of music and I just didn’t care enough about this music to pay much attention to it.
But none of that means I wasn’t interested in her story, and passionately on her side. For the past five years, Kesha has been fighting to break free of her producer, Dr. Luke, whom she says physically, sexually and emotionally abused her. The courts did not have her back, denying her request to be released from her record contract (so she would not have to work with her abuser) and eventually throwing out all her abuse claims, forcing her to drop the case last August. This means she’s still on Dr. Luke’s record label, and is still bound to give him her new music.
Which, as it turns out, she has. She’d been writing and recording throughout her self-imposed exile, not wanting to give these songs to the man she was trying to get away from. I have no idea how hard it was for her to go through what she’s gone through and then hand her new music over anyway. Kesha has said that she didn’t know whether she would ever be able to create new music again, and even though she’s forced to work with Dr. Luke, she’s celebrating the release of these songs, so I’m going to celebrate with her.
And I figured that’s as far as it would go. I’d be happy to see a third Kesha album, finally. I’d be happy to see her back in the public eye, talking about her ordeal over the last five years and the reserves she drew on to finish it and release it. I’d be a cheerleader from a distance, happy for my friends who like Kesha, but continuing to not be all that interested in listening to her myself.
And then I heard “Praying,” the powerful first single from Kesha’s new album, and it was all over. I knew I would be buying and listening to this thing. “Praying” is a haunting piano number all about Dr. Luke, although it never names him. But it’s not vengeful or even angry. It comes from a place of pride and strength, wishing good things for her abuser: “I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying…” This is a completely different Kesha, a serious-minded and thoughtful one.
That’s the Kesha most on display throughout Rainbow, her absolute revelation of a third album. Rainbow is ludicrously better than anything else I’ve heard from her, a massive leap into the realm of serious artist to be reckoned with. I don’t want to overhype it – it’s still a pop record, not The Age of Adz or anything – but damn if it isn’t a compelling pop record, solid and diverse and endlessly entertaining. Best of all, it showcases (for the first time, I believe) the real Kesha, not the cartoon party animal she played on her first two records. (The complete absence of Dr. Luke from the credits is not a coincidence here.)
And the real Kesha is weird and fun, of course, but also strong and self-possessed. After years of being accused of auto-tuning her way through her music to hide her vocal deficiencies, she begins Rainbow accompanied only by acoustic guitar, singing the folksy “Bastards” alone. “Don’t let the bastards get you down, don’t let the assholes wear you out,” she sings, which is basically the album’s mission statement. For the album’s first half, Kesha swears like she’s just discovered it while penning anthem after anthem about standing up and being yourself in the face of adversity.
And they’re great songs. “Let ‘Em Talk” is where the record kicks in, an electric guitar-fueled pop-punk powerhouse featuring Eagles of Death Metal. It’s so singable, and it leads perfectly into “Woman,” one of the record’s cornerstones. Over tasty licks from the Dap-Kings horns, Kesha gives us a modern-day “Respect,” declaring herself a “motherfucking woman, I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight.” You can’t listen to this song without simultaneously dancing and pumping your fist in the air. My favorite part, though, is the most authentic – it’s her breakdown into giggles in the second verse. It sounds like an outtake, like it shouldn’t be here, and I love the fact that it is.
Honestly, the record never gets less interesting. “Learn to Let Go” is a delightful pop tune, all about moving past hardship and embracing life. Its message is the record’s message, and in this context “Praying” fits perfectly. It’s not even the best piano ballad on the album, though – that prize goes to the title track, with full orchestration by Ben Folds. It’s about getting back the stars in your eyes, falling in love with being alive, and it’s exactly the hard-won encouragement you’d hope for. The soaring middle eight may be my favorite part of this record.
And then, in the second half, she just gets on with the business of being Kesha, still informed by the ordeals of the last five years but free of them in new and interesting ways. “Finding You” may be my favorite here – it’s about devotion, about saying forever and meaning it, and it’s a world-class pop song, all pianos and acoustic guitars and Kesha’s swooping voice. Good-time tunes “Boogie Feet” and “Boots” are back to the old Kesha sound, but updated in more organic ways. “Hunt You Down” is a genuine surprise, a rockabilly two-step about murdering cheating boyfriends. Believe it or not, it’s fun, and it’s great to hear Kesha having fun.
The final stretch is probably the most surprising, though. None other than Dolly Parton joins Kesha on “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” a lovely torch song she popularized in 1980. Why is it here? Well, because Kesha’s mother, Pebe Siebert, co-wrote it. Its inclusion is touching, and leads into the quirky final two songs. I’m not even sure what to say about these, they’re so outside the realm of what I expected. “Godzilla” is an acoustic ditty about loving people no matter what they are, and “Spaceship”… well, “Spaceship” is just awesome. A cosmic folk song in the middle ground between Patsy Cline and The X-Files, “Spaceship” is about not fitting in down here, and waiting for the aliens to rescue you. For real. That’s what it’s about. That Kesha is so committed to it makes it oddly beautiful. It’s one of my favorite things here.
That I have favorite things on a Kesha album is a strange experience for me. Make no mistake, though, Rainbow is a superb, solid, triumphant and endlessly entertaining piece of work. It’s such a revelation, so far beyond what I thought I was going to get that it boggles my mind. It’s a testament to her strength and resilience that it exists at all, and that it comes from such a place of peace and self-worth. She’s come through a harrowing time, and found herself on the other side, changed for the better. This is our first visit with the real Kesha, and I like her quite a bit. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
Next week, who knows? Could be anything. Be strong until then. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.