In promotional materials, Gag Order is billed as a “post-pop” record exploring themes of empowerment and self-discovery. You can debate the “post-pop” part – it’s certainly not a standard pop album – and self-discovery is inevitable, but Kesha does not sound particularly empowered on Gag Order. She doesn’t seem too interested in giving the world another empowerment anthem at this stage: “I feel safest in the silence/ And I’m so goddamn sick of fighting,” she sings on ‘Fine Line’, resisting any kind of neat narrative. It makes sense. For one thing, her years-long legal battle with her former producer Dr. Luke, who she accused of sexual and emotional abuse (and whose label she is still technically signed to), is ongoing. There’s no “used to” in her darkness; no rainbow in sight, or really any metaphor to cling to. There’s no standout like ‘Praying’ to carry the weight of it all. “I let my darkness have the light,” the singer wrote in a manifesto for the new album. “I can’t fight the truth.” So she doesn’t try.
But she’s still determined to bring color to the swirl of emotions she’s had to bear up against, and the ways she goes about it are both strange and often intriguing. Kesha may not have a reputation for being a boundary-pushing pop artist, but the journey towards maturity that has marked her output since 2017’s Rainbow has not exactly been a conventional one. (Let me remind you that that album, perhaps best remembered for trading in elements of folk and country, included an Eagles of Death Metal collaboration in which Kesha told “all the haters everywhere” to “suck my dick.”) By 2020’s High Road, Kesha was more audibly torn between her image as a carefree pop star and a more introspective songwriter, leaving the album feeling muddled and conflicted. On her latest, produced by Rick Rubin, she continues to embrace uncertainty but strips the freneticism out of her approach. Still unable to speak openly about her experience, her anger drudges into weariness more often than it’s turned outward. Like her most recent albums, Gag Order doesn’t exactly stick to a single lane, but it’s pervaded by the same dour mood even as it flits between styles.
The first thing you’ll notice about the album is its stark, minimalist production, which hangs ominously over the first two tracks, ‘Something to Believe In’ and ‘Eat the Acid’. The subtlety suits her, building tension without making much of a statement. You immediately get the sense that Kesha is in search of something rather simply trudging around, careful with her words but in tune with her feelings, which the music conveys by persistently hinting at a bigger revelation that might never fully arrive. Even a ballad like ‘Hate Me Harder’, which is filled with righteous conviction, avoids the traditional payoff you’d expect, giving the impression that Kesha and her collaborators are more focused on tracing the actual trajectory of her emotions, as unsettled as they may be. “There’s a fine line between hope and delusion/ Between what’s right and what we’ve just gotten used to,” she sings, her self-awareness colouring every jarring shift and bold declaration.
Gag Order has more than a few of those. When she ends ‘Fine Line’ with the obliterating lyric, “But hey, look at all the money we made off me,” the transition to the brash, stomping beat of ‘Only Love Can Save Us Now’ feels both necessary and a little tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, the song’s gospel-inspired chorus sounds stiff and generic, dampening its message. For an album that lacks vibrancy but not spirit, it’s a shame the music struggles to communicate the spiritual awakening that inspired it in a way that gels with the album’s flow. There’s an interlude from the late guru Ram Dass, while the Indian mystic Osho is sampled on ‘All I Need Is You’, and 80-year-old wizard Oberon Zell features on ‘Happy’. But their voices aren’t integrated in a way quite as compelling or immersive as, say, the appearance of Judah Smith on Lana Del Rey’s latest album. There’s no reason why Kesha shouldn’t lean into the eeriness that’s found elsewhere on the album even when the guidance she receives is more grounded than ambivalent.
More moving and disarming is the album’s raw vulnerability, which can be heard on tracks like ‘Living in My Head’ and the lovely ‘All I Need Is You’. Kesha wrote the first in the middle of a panic attack, and it sounds a little terrified of its own existence: “Every time I listen to ‘Living in My Head’ I just want to curl up in a ball and hide,” she said in an interview. But there’s really not much evidence of hiding on Gag Order, and more impressively, not much showing off either. Although a few songs feel somewhat undercooked, there is a simmering intensity to the album that feels fresh, a sign that Kesha is becoming more comfortable following her instincts rather than having to choose between them. She’s not looking to prove anything, just finding new ways to persevere.