Kesha’s Journey from ‘Animal’ to ‘Only Love’ (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Less than a year and a half later, Kesha released High Road, her fourth studio album. Focusing more than its predecessor upon classic rock, country and pop styles, it sold well, giving the artist her fourth Top Ten album. With a planned concert tour cut short by lockdowns associated with the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic, Kesha turned to promoting her newer songs by emphasizing television appearances and music videos. She returned for a modestly-scaled tour in 2021.

Behind the scenes, protracted legal battles between Kesha and her former producer Dr. Luke consumed much of the artist’s attention. But turning the turmoil to her creative advantage, Kesha wrote the songs for what would become Gag Order, her pointedly-titled fifth album. The last to be delivered under the terms of her original contract (signed when Kesha was a mere 18 years old), Gag Order is no tossed-off, contract-fulfilling trifle. Conceived more as a work of personal expression than a commercial enterprise, Gag Order sounds like the album Kesha felt she had to make.

Critics tended to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the creation of Gag Order, and the reviews reflected that nuanced view. Characterizing the album as “a twisted ball of fury and sorrow,” Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine lauded the artist’s “keening performance.” But in the same review he suggested that Gag Order “delivers catharsis without much consideration for the audience.”

But discussing the album’s context – Kesha’s accusations of abuse at the hands of her former producer, and a judge’s dismissal of the case on technical grounds – Alex Hopper, writing for American Songwriter, called Gag Order “a natural next step… an effort that takes big risks to find equal rewards.” Even the notoriously critical Pitchfork gave the album a positive review, underscoring the confessional and visceral qualities of the album. The review quoted an an example from “Fine Line,” the album’s closing track: “There’s a fine line between what’s entertaining and what’s exploiting the pain / but hey, look at all the money we made off me.” Many critics noted Kesha’s skill in writing about personal matters while (due to legal constraints) doing so in an oblique manner.

Despite the album title’s implication, Kesha has gone on the record to discuss it. In fact, the artist went so far as to pen a manifesto of sorts for Nylon. Published in April 2023 – just three weeks before Gag Order’s release – the artist explained the motivation for creating such a nakedly forthright record. “Without the darkness there is no light,” she wrote. “So I let my darkness have the light. I can’t fight the truth. Life is difficult and painful. It is for everyone.” Elsewhere in the piece, she asserted that “an artist doesn’t exist to make others happy. I believe an artist gives voice, motion, color to the emotions we all have. The good emotions, and the unmanageably fucking miserable ones.”

For her efforts, Kesha landed her fifth album on the charts yet again, albeit in more modest fashion than before. While Gag Order stalled on the mainstream Billboard 200, reaching only #168, it may well have found her a new, more discerning audience, one less concerned with singles and open to more serious, album-length work. The album climbed to the #14 spot on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums chart.

Against the backdrop of Gag Order’s raw and honest lyrical content (weeded to dance beats and with production by Rick Rubin), Kesha announced the upcoming Gag Order Tour in May. But after reaching a settlement with Dr. Luke in June, by September Kesha had re-branded the tour in more upbeat fashion, dubbing it the Only Love Tour. Serving up anthemic smash hits like “Tik Tok,” “Your Love is My Drug,” “We R Who We Are” and “Die Young” alongside new tracks from Gag Order, concert dates showcase the Kesha of yesterday and today, and provide a glimpse of where this compelling artist is headed next.

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