There are two, in a sense contradictory, things one must avoid doing with a pop album released after any kind of personal drama/trauma/profile. Any sensible listener would take these on board even if, or maybe especially if, the album reaches number one, as Kesha’s album has done this week.
Number one could be called the Britney Spears Rule: don’t over-analyse/over-attribute lyrics which may well have come from not just a committee but a committee of middle-aged songwriters and producers trying to channel “yoof”. Or indeed looking to comment ironically on both yoof and the way yoof culture is manhandled.
Number two could be called the Carly Rae Jepsen/Miley Cyrus Rule: don’t underestimate the talent, pop-sense and smarts of someone just because they have been products of aforementioned middle-aged songwriters and producers in the past.
Latterly, Kesha Sebert has, for more years than she’d like, been known less for music than a protracted, ugly and inevitably scarring court case against her one-time producer and self-styled Svengali, Dr Luke, aka Lukasz Gottwald (whom she accused of abuse, among many equally unpleasant things), and with her label, Sony, (whom she saw as at the very least abetting if not aiding said abuse).
Whatever the truth of the situations – and anyone who has spent any time in the music industry would have been inclined to believe her – Sebert lost her cases and the verdict included being forced to remain with Sony, albeit not through Gottwald’s production house.
Her partial victory perhaps was the severing of ties between Sony and the writer/producer. Her greater victory though is this diverse, high-functioning pop album which subverts Rule 1, reinforces Rule 2 and pretty much owns the space.
The album begins with the no-messing-around-then Bastards (as in “don’t let the bastards get you down/Don’t let the assholes wear you out”), which begins as an acoustic guitar-and voice track and climaxes with a bit of gospel choir and synths exultation.
In this, Sebert – who has the sole writing credit and no longer wears the corporate producer’s favourite tool, Autotune – sets out her stall for later righteous/angry/defiant tracks, such as Woman and Learn To Let Go, singing of her disdain for “all those motherfuckers [who] have been too mean for too long”.
Those motherfuckers presumably including the person in Praying who “almost had me fooled/Told me that I was nothing without you” and “brought the flames and put me through hell”. Hmm, to whom might she be referring?
Bastards also prepares the ground somewhat for the Dixie Chicks-ish Spaceship (one of several co-written by her mother Pebe, who is an experienced Nashville writer) which ends the album with a mix of playful fantasy and simple honesty that boils down to the spoken interlude: “I watch my life, backwards and forwards, and I feel free.”
Not that Rainbow is, or should be reduced to some kind of “I have survived” narrative, though she does work the escaping from imprisonment metaphors hard. And it’s true that the rousing power ballad Praying does emotionally rise and rise on the combination of disgust masked as semi-forgiveness (“I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees/Praying”) and clarity out of recovery (“And you said that I was done/Well you were wrong and now the best is yet to come”).
Most of all though, Rainbow is a pop album that hits a lot of targets – rock song, dance song, country-ish song, R&B song, Caribbean-flavoured song, pop/rock song, brassy modern soul song.
That list may appear cynical, or tactical, or smart, or appropriate. Or all four. But so be it.
There’s swagger in Woman (with the Dap Kings Horns) that all but struts out of the speakers and into the later Learn To Let Go, before exploding into a kind of robot-meets-glam disco Boogie Feet.
There’s a big nod to Johnny Cash style in the verses of Hunt You Down that ends up much more Loretta Lynne even as she cheerfully announces, in language Ms Lynne would never use “I’ve never hurt nobody, never buried a body …. Just know, that if you fuck around/Boy, I’ll hunt you down”.
And you can throw in a new version of Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You) a song her mother wrote for Dolly Parton nearly 40 years ago, that somehow transforms from old school country ((with Dolly duetting) into late period Beatles, and add the fuzzy pop pogo of Let ‘Em Talk, that has a New Wave fizz.
They work, and not just as background to the out-of-studio life/drama that’s more often discussed with the album’s executive producer, Kesha Sebert.
Forget anthems to empowerment, it may be that the best proof of genuine control and success is making an album that works for you, the listeners and “the bastards”, but on your terms.