Taking the High Road
Kesha Follows the Rainbow and Goes Everywhere at Once

The Good Place came to an end last week.

I haven’t talked too much about this show – which has manifestly been my favorite thing on television for the past four years – because I was afraid. I’ve certainly been guilty before of pumping up shows that failed to stick their endings. The Good Place is a show that, as it went along, became more and more dependent on that ending to clarify its message, and I was worried that it wouldn’t.

I should have had more faith. The Good Place was created by Parks and Recreation mastermind Michael Schur, and it’s clear now that he had a coherent and well-thought-out plan for what he was trying to say with his show. If you’ve never watched, I can only describe the first of many premises: Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who wakes up to find herself in the afterlife. She’s told (by Ted Danson as heavenly architect Michael) that she’s in the good place, because she lived such a selfless and extraordinary life.

There’s only one problem: she didn’t, and she knows she didn’t. She quickly susses out the fact that she’s in the good place by accident, and has to learn how to be a good person in order to stay. After that, there are twists upon twists – the show in season three did not resemble the show in season one at all – but the theme remained the same: people can get better. Progress is slow, but people can improve, and we can all help each other become the best versions of ourselves.

The show took some narrative turns in its fourth and final season that made me even more nervous, but the ending was absolutely marvelous. It was, in fact, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television. It managed to be entirely about these six characters we have come to love, while also nailing the themes that the show has been forwarding for four years. I am so happy to have been privileged enough to experience this show. It turned out to be the most optimistic, gorgeous thing, a show that champions incremental progress and the value of community. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as close as TV gets, and while I am glad it went out on its own terms, I’m going to miss it very much.

I say this with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: take it sleazy, Good Place.

* * * * *

You know when something just isn’t your thing? Like, you have nothing against it or the people who enjoy it, but it just isn’t for you?

I will readily admit that for most of her career, Kesha just hasn’t been my thing. I know people who swear by her first two grimy pop records, Animal and Warrior, and I’ve never liked either one of them. “Tik Tok,” as a song, makes me want to die a little bit. Kesha’s whole persona on those albums, combined with the plastic pop production, kills any desire I might have to listen to them. I’ve gone back a couple times to see if I can get into them, and I just can’t.

Why would I try so hard to like these records? One word: Rainbow. Kesha’s third album, released in 2017 after years of public struggle with her producer/abuser Dr. Luke, was an absolute revelation. Rainbow is just awesome, a hard-hitting song cycle about perseverance, forgiveness and being the better person, and it reintroduced Kesha as an artist worth paying attention to. The songs range from punk-ish kiss-offs to lovely balladry to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton, and I was simply blown away by the whole thing.

So of course, I was in for whatever she chose to do next. I may not like where she’s come from, but I’m jazzed to see where she’s going. I’m a little sad to report that I’m conflicted about Kesha’s fourth album, High Road – there’s a lot to like about it, but it doesn’t move me nearly as much as its predecessor. High Road was billed as a return to the carefree party-girl Kesha, and I’m thrilled to hear her moving on and getting past some of the emotional turmoil that fueled Rainbow. High Road is about flushing one’s life of negativity and focusing on feeling good, and that’s a fine place for Kesha to find herself. I’m happy for her.

But that return to her own happiness has also brought back some of the musical tics I dislike from her earlier work. The sweet piano chords that open “Tonight” drew me in – her full-throated singing voice is, as always, spectacular – but my spirits fell through the floor as soon as the “bitch, we going out tonight” nonsense began. The first four songs on High Road all hearken back to the radio-pop days, and while “Tonight” is the only one that’s truly awful – I quite like “Raising Hell,” in fact – the tone is set.

Things get better from there, and they also get weirder, which I love. Rainbow was about Kesha learning to trust her own instincts, and in the back half of High Road they largely steer her right. She’s still delightfully vulgar, even in her most delicate moments – the ballad “Shadow” includes a whole verse about the fact that she loves singing “fuck” in all of her songs – but it’s those delicate moments I like best here. “Cowboy Blues” is a tender acoustic lament, in which Kesha asks “did I fuck my whole life up?” “Resentment,” right after that, brings in Sturgill Simpson and a basically inaudible Brian Wilson for a lullaby of bitterness.

I love that Kesha seems to do whatever she wants, from the bouncy ‘60s pop of “Little Bit of Love” to the chiptune horniness of “Birthday Suit.” Her most left-field number here is “The Potato Song,” with its Cabaret-like arrangement, complete with tubas. Her voice adapts to fit each of these artistic swerves, and it’s remarkable that her musical identity can encompass all of this – hell, “The Potato Song” has a kazoo interlude, and it sounds natural.

It’s easy for me to forgive some of the album’s early missteps by the time we hit the emotional final third. “BFF” is a sweet ‘80s-style duet with her songwriting partner, Stephen Wrabel, while the wrenching “Father Daughter Dance” finds her opening up about her absent father – “He’s nothing, he’s no one, a stranger.” It’s a powerful song, and I hope she finds it within herself to write more like it, because she nails it. Closer “Chasing Thunder” is a big folk-pop song, but it sets the right wide-open-spaces note for this album to end on.

That Kesha manages all of this in 45 minutes is both High Road’s strength and weakness. She covers a lot of ground, from the blippy pop of the first songs to the organic beauty of the last ones, and sacrifices consistency to do it. But in its best moments, High Roadcatches the spark that made Rainbow such a wonder. There’s no one else I can think of who would have made this record this way, and there’s no doubt that it’s exactly what she wanted it to be. Kesha is still evolving as an artist, still finding out who she wants to be, and if High Road sounds like she wants to be everything all at once, she still proves that her journey is worth listening to.

Next week, Green Day and a few others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.