“All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue outta my mouth,” Kesha says. Her once-playful talk-singing now sounds raw and vulnerable over the trembling piano chords of Fine Line. The song is calmly venomous in its disdain for those who have wronged her, and is loaded with references to her almost decade-long ongoing legal battle against former producer and label head Lukasz Gottwald on her aptly-named album Gag Order. Although it is the final release under the record label of her alleged abuser, the album is all Kesha, a meticulously crafted and finely tuned testament to her prowess as a songwriter.
With her claims of sexual assault and emotional abuse dismissed back in 2016, and a counter-suit for defamation approaching trial in July 2023, Gag Order eschews the optimism and hope of Rainbow and High Road for the cynicism of someone forced to fight against her will. “There’s so many things I said that I wish I left unsaid,” the embattled star sings on the final song Happy, “I’ve gotten used to the fall.”
Other songs are even more deeply personal, describing her difficult journey in grappling with trauma. “You don’t wanna be changed like it changed me” is ominously repeated amidst the grip of claustrophobic synthesisers in Eat the Acid. This is purportedly a warning given to her about the dangers of LSD, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of Kesha’s story. The music video shows her face trapped amongst a cacophony of probing hands. This parallels with the uncomfortable album art that shows her imprisoned within a plastic bag, an embodiment of the suffocating loss of control echoed throughout the desolate landscape of the songs within.
“The bitch I was, she dead, her grave desecrated,” she declares over a cash-register beat on album highlight Only Love Can Save Us Now, before transitioning into the gospel-infused chorus. The death is musical as well as lyrical: frenetic synthesisers and drum machines are swapped for spoken interludes from spiritual leaders. Produced by the inimitable Rick Rubin of Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys and The Strokes fame, the album is a sonic departure for anyone with even a passing knowledge of her discography. Though the dollar sign in her name has been gone since 2014 and the irresistible auto-tuned hooks have been sparse since Warrior, Gag Order is still a remarkable turn into the world of alternative pop.
Synthesisers crouch in the shadows instead of forcing songs forward and acoustic instruments fill the space between them; the piano line in Too Far Gone is reminiscent of Halsey’s Nine Inch Nails-produced If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power. The real star of the album, however, is Kesha’s voice, the oft-doubted star showing once and for all that she truly needs no auto-tune to shine (though how anyone could doubt her after the high note in Praying, I have no idea.)
Kesha is something of an anomaly in that despite writing some of the greatest pop songs of the 2010s, she has never been looked upon as a great songwriter. Her lyrical sarcasm was mistaken for sincerity and Praying was the first time many truly listened to what she was saying. Her previous songs, despite their lighter subject matter, were in no way worse for using synthesisers over Steinways. Regardless of your feelings on her “vapid” party anthems or their authenticity, the quality of Gag Order is enough to prove any doubters wrong.
We all know the iconic opening line of TiK ToK, with Kesha’s knack for brilliantly memorable one-liners and songwriting one of the only constants across her discography. The pre-choruses of C’Mon and Crazy Kids are pop perfection, as is the desperately lonely autotune (along with the endlessly fun pun) in c u next tuesday. “I’m gettin’ sued because my mom has been tweetin’ / don’t fucking tell me I’m dealing with reason” she screams – her lyricism made all the more powerful by the struggles she has publicly endured for so long.