A sense of catharsis is etched all over an album the most successful moments of which happen when she mixes her experimental side with her pop sensibility
After everything that Kesha has undergone in the last few years, it’s understandable that Gag Order sounds completely different to any record she’s released previously. For the uninitiated, back in 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit against her former producer Dr Luke, alleging a litany of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. He counter-sued, and for years Kesha was effectively legally unable to record any music until the release of 2017’s Rainbow.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the case is still ongoing, and Kesha has released music since Rainbow (with 2020’s High Road being her last album) but the shadow of the allegations and subsequent court proceedings hang heavily over Gag Order. There’s the title itself, the cover art featuring Kesha with a clear plastic bag over her head, and mostly the sense of catharsis which is etched all over this album.
So, she’s a long way from Tik Tok and Your Love Is My Drug, and while they were perfectly serviceable pop songs at the time, the material on Gag Order is a million miles away from that early material. The presence of Rick Rubin as producer may make you think it’ll be full of stripped down ballads like late-period Johnny Cash. In reality, the album bounces all over the place stylistically.
There’s an eerie, unsettling vibe to much of Gag Order. Opening track Something To Believe In takes almost 15 seconds to fade in before the synth squiggles and muted organs begin to kick in. By the end it feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart, with Kesha’s pitch-shifted vocal declaring “I’m so embarrassing, so used to abandoning”. It’s the first sign that this won’t be an easy listen. Eat The Acid is minimal electronica – the restraint in the vocal is palpable, as Kesha talks of connecting with God and seeking resolution. You keep expecting the song to explode into a big chorus but it never really does, and that tension adds to the song’s quality.
Living In My Head is an acoustic ballad which reminds everyone that Kesha has an excellent, soulful voice, a point reinforced later on in the record by Hate Me Harder which is the closest that Gag Order comes to providing a stadium anthem. And every so often, things go completely wild, as in The Drama, which samples a Ramones track, becomes weird and discordant like an Anna Meredith track and ends with Kesha exclaiming “In the next life I wanna come back as a house cat” for an entire minute.
The most successful moments on Gag Order is where she mixes this experimental side with her pop sensibility. All I Need Is You has a gorgeous synth shimmer to it, reminiscent of Björk‘s early days, before developing into a rather lovely ballad. Fine Line has a euphoric feel, with some lyrics obviously inspired by her recovery from trauma – the way she spits out the song’s many swear words makes it obvious how much of a cathartic release making this record was for her.
Sometimes though, Gag Order does seem a bit half-formed. There are so many ideas and half-formed sketches here that it never really feels like a fully fledged album. One minute we’re in piano ballad territory, next minute there’s a 75 second interlude where spiritual teacher Ram Dass talks of grief and trauma. Then, a few minutes later, there’s something like Peace And Quiet where the auto-tune is overused dramatically – which seems a bit unnecessary when we already know what a good singer she can be.
Happy seems like a perfect place to close the album, a summation of how she’s got through the last few years and where she is now – “If you ask me now, all I’ve wanted to be is happy”. It’s a poignant way to sign off an album which is both fascinating and hard to listen to at times. Gag Order may not go down as Kesha’s best album, but it’s certainly the album that she has to make at this present time.