At first, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” was my favorite song on the album. In a waltz with the one and only Dolly Parton, Kesha’s resonant vocals are set against a meandering pedal steel guitar which is decidedly “country”; yet the underlying near heavy-metal downpicking and tambourine on the chorus elevates the tune to “not your grandmother’s” country shuffle. Kesha and Parton’s vocals complement each other beautifully as a faint doo-wop piano adds to the nostalgia of unparalleled love. Lyrically, love is likened to a flame, of course; but embers, fires, and candles are also invoked to describe the type of love about which singer-songwriter Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt wrote in 1978. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You”) is the only cover song on the album: Kesha does her own writing, which is another reason to love this deeply-personal album.
As it turns out, “Spaceship”, track number 14, is my absolute favorite song on the album. Kesha’s voice is paired with a banjo (and also a mandolin?) on the verses as she sings: “I always said when I’m gone, when I’m dead / Don’t lay me down with the dirt on my head / You won’t need a shovel, you don’t need a cold headstone / You don’t need to cry, I’m gon’ be going home.” Due to the minimalism of the song, I am able to hear the beautiful timbre in her voice which is not buried (but instead enhanced) by the stripped-down instrumentation. “Spaceship” is essentially a dirge about how the narrator wants to be treated at the time the she departs the earth. I can think of no creative act on par with the self-penned elegy that is perhaps the penultimate act of staking one’s little claim on this spinning earth. The elegy song is basically akin to a living will for artists and one of the greatest works they can write. The narrator of the song laments her life on Earth and states that she’s from another galaxy and will one day return home. Note the ethereal backing vocals on the chorus and how they creates a ghostly ambience that is not quite of this world. In my lil humble opinion, “Spaceship” is the best song on the album, because in a really beautiful, inventive way the artist confronts her mortality, contemplates her place in the world, and explores her interest in what lies beyond. The existential lyrics contemplating one’s mortality on “Spaceship” immediately liken the mundane verse in “Tik Tok” to mere fodder for some otherworldy sacred cow.
“Woman” is a righteous, feisty song and gives voice to female empowerment and staking your ground, dominant themes of Rainbow. A saxophone full of attitude paves the way for the famed Dap-Kings horn section (who backed the inimitable, late Sharon Jones). Kesha sings: “I buy my own things/ I pay my own bills / These diamond rings / My automobiles / Everything I got I bought it / Boys can’t buy my love/ Buy my love, yeah / I do what I want / Say what you say / I work real hard everyday / I’m a motherfucking woman, baby alright.” The song is part cabaret, part pop, and all sass, and Kesha sprinkles in some expletives for good measure (and I’m not mad at her for it). In fact, I love her for it because artistic integrity is not sanitized and flawless. Kesha is the antithesis to the Insta-world where all things appear perfect but are far from it: she is the raw and the real. In other words, beauty lies in imperfection. Sometimes, what is most real is disheveled and rough-around-the-edges. Check out “Boots”, which is a little bit like the “answer” to “Woman” and “Hunt You Down”, a pantomimic ballad about murdering a lover who has done you horribly wrong. Either way, this kaleidoscopic genre-bending album showcases Kesha’s dynamic vocal ability and range.
Forgiveness, prayer, and redemption from suffering (at the hands of loved ones) are also major themes of Rainbow. You’ve likely heard “Praying” at this point, which was released with a stunning, video depicting a narrator who is letting go of the pain of all of those who have wronged her. If you haven’t seen her late night television performance of “Praying”, it is an awe-inspiring performance. The use of repetition andguttural belting of the lyrics “praying” and “changing” make it the centerpiece of the album, no doubt. But “Rainbow”—the song after which the album has been named–has quickly become another of my absolute favorites. Kesha wrote “Rainbow” when she was in rehab for an eating disorder, so this song both embodies and symbolizes healing, growth, and survival. “Rainbow”–with its swelling string arrangements–evoke the magic of a Disney scene in which the lead character performs her triumphant soliloquy in a sunlit forest. Kesha sings: “I used to live in the darkness / dress in black / act so heartless / but now I see that colors are everything.” Thematically, colors are a key vehicle for communicating personal transformation, and if you’ve seen the album artwork, you know what I mean. “Rainbow” signifies a new beginning or a re-birth while “Spaceship”–a song contemplating mortality–is the perfect final cut.
And that leaves “Bastards” which was described in the Rolling Stone review as a “ballad ripe for a campfire singalong”. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “Bastards” echos the sentiment my father still eschews to his kids today. This pep-talk of a title track is Kesha’s inner dialogue turned outward: ” Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out /Don’t let the mean girls take the crown / Don’t let the scumbags screw you ’round / Don’t let the bastards take you down.” And that’s pretty solid advice.
I haven’t heard much of Kesha’s work aside from her 2010 album, Animal; but after listening to Rainbow, I’d count myself among the ranks of her adoring fans. After just a few spins of the album, there are some standout tracks that I would say are “great”, due either to the result of her collaborations with other (great) artists, her emotive shapeshifting vocals, or how content/lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, and overall production quality culminate in beautifully-crafted songs. As it turns out, the punchy, poppy dance tunes are my least favorite songs but are catchy in their own right. The songs I am drawn to and that have the most substance, in terms of lyrical content, also happen to be the most minimally arranged.
In general, Kesha really shines when her emotive voice gets to take center stage without competing with a spastic instrumental backdrop (“Boogie Feet” comes to mind). It’s easy to pass judgement on an artist like Kesha who has achieved the all-too-evasive super-stardom; but check out some of her live performances from “Rainbow” and if you’re like me, you’ll be moved by how she has completely lived the experiences about which she sings. “Spaceship”, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)”, “Rainbow”, “Bastards”, and “Praying” are beautiful and honest songs that I will return to again and again. If you’re the least bit privy to the legal battles and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her former producer, “Dr. Luke”, it’s not difficult to see that Rainbow is a work of catharsis and metamorphosis. It’s fantastic to witness her return to her country roots because, yes, she isn’t merely a manufactured pop-star: not only does she write her own songs, but she can really sing. Check her out!