Kesha – Gag Order album review: dark strange and grippingly honest

Unfortunately for Kesha Sebert, for almost a decade now her legal battles have had more attention than her music. It’s a very long time since her US number one single Tik Tok – titled before the social media behemoth was even a thing – which announced the Los Angeles singer’s arrival as a harder-living version of Pink or Katy Perry in 2009, claiming to brush her teeth with Jack Daniels and insisting, “The party don’t start ‘til I walk in.”

She’s been fighting the producer of that hit, Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald since 2014. She tried to sue him for “infliction of emotional distress, sex-based hate crimes and employment discrimination”. A judge eventually dismissed that, and Gottwald is now suing her for defamation and breach of contract, with a trial due to begin in July.

Her inability to speak openly about her legal situation explains the title of this fifth album and its cover, showing her face suffocated by a plastic bag. The closest she comes to specifics in the lyrics is in Fine Line: “All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue out of my mouth/I’ve been hiding my anger but bitch look at me now.” But from the first minute onwards, the sound of the music makes it painfully clear that all is not well.

In the past, she has made some attempts to carry on being the outlandish pop singer of her early days. Her last album, High Road in 2020, contained the computer game bleeping of Birthday Suit and an annoyingly eccentric track titled Potato Song (Cuz I Want To). In contrast, Gag Order is by far her darkest, strangest release.

She made it with legendary producer Rick Rubin, whose hands-off working methods have always been mysterious, and in this instance she has said they involved allowing her to cry for the first two hours of every day. The sounds he supervised are stark and minimal. Only Love Can Save Us Now is built on a rumbling bass note and a clicking typewriter, before shifting into a wild gospel chorus. The Drama features sharp, fearsome electronic buzzes over which Kesha shouts sarcastically: “Are we having fun yet?” Then the tone shifts entirely when she chirps repeatedly, “In the next life I wanna come back as a house cat.”

It’s a disorientating listen, but as a reflection of a mind that is understandably troubled in the long term, it stands as a grippingly honest work. When she can finally speak openly, who knows what she’ll be able to come up with.