It’s impossible to discuss Kesha’s third studio effort without referring to the five years of trauma she’s suffered since her second. If only for the fact the now dollar sign-less star appears to allude to her experiences on every single one of its 14 self-penned tracks.
Of course, the 30-year-old has certainly earned the right to use Rainbow as a form of catharsis. Since the release of 2012’s Warrior, Kesha has checked into rehab for an eating disorder, been embroiled in a bitter legal battle with Sony and, most harrowingly of all, accused former frequent collaborator Dr. Luke of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Rainbow may not be a particularly subtle affair – it opens with a campfire singalong named “Bastards” (“But they won’t break my spirit, I won’t let ’em win/I’ll just keep on living, keep on living, oh/The way I wanna live”) and you’re never more than a couple of lines away from a therapy session cliché, but it’s refreshing to hear a major pop star sing every word with so much conviction.
Indeed, Rainbow is nothing if not a purely Kesha affair. She may have found fame with EDM-lite anthems about getting trashed. But from her previous Iggy Pop collaboration to her talk of being inspired by Neil Young, there always appears to have been a more intelligent and musically adventurous character just waiting to burst out.
And here, with a little help an eclectic range of guest stars, she fully embraces it. Ben Folds works his magic with a swelling orchestral arrangement on the baroque title track; Eagles of Death Metal bring some pedal to the metal on the scuzzy garage rock of “Let ‘Em Talk” and “Boogie Feet”; while the late Sharon Jones’ brilliantly tight backing band The Dap-Kings show up on “Woman,” a defiant retro-soul number which appears to reference not just one but two Destiny’s Child classics (“I buy my own things/I pay my own bills/These diamond rings, my automobiles/Everything I got, I bought it”).
Best of all is “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” a spirited take on the number that Kesha’s Nashville hitmaker mother Pebe Sebert penned for Dolly Parton which features the self-proclaimed Backwoods Barbie herself.
In fact, it’s the latter’s classic country sound where Kesha sounds most comfortable, whether it’s on “Godzilla,” a goofy little ditty about bringing home the iconic monster home to meet her mom, the contemplative bluegrass of closer “Spaceship” or “Hunt You Down,” a rollocking Grand Ole Opry-style number which suggests Reese Witherspoon may have some competition if ever there’s a Walk the Line sequel.
Rainbow’s laissez-faire approach means it’s difficult to see much following the powerful soul-baring of “Praying” into the Top 40. Only the joyously uplifting “Learn to Let Go” and the playful dance-pop of “Boots” come anywhere close to the radio-friendly sound that Kesha previously pursued.
But you get the feeling that Kesha doesn’t care anyway. Rainbow is simply the record she needed to make. And at a time where most pop music is either designed by committee or drowning in beigeness, it’s also the kind of individual and achingly honest record we needed to hear.