Metro Weekly

Kesha’s ‘Gag Order’ Review: Ungagged

Kesha reckons with her own anger and trauma on her fantastic fifth studio album, "Gag Order."

Kesha - Photo: Vincent Haycock
Kesha – Photo: Vincent Haycock

Kesha is done trying to rise from the ashes, and it’s not hard to see why. Having become all but synonymous with her protracted, years-long legal battle with her producer and his label, she has made no secret about the toll it has taken on her.

At certain points there were reasons for her to hope that the end was in sight, or that she could put on a brave face and put everything behind her and look forward, and that hope found expression in the upbeat, empowered roots-rock of her previous two albums.

Her latest, Gag Order (★★★★☆) veers in a different direction altogether, and amounts to a public acknowledgement that she is still far from fine.

Wherever they come from, grief and trauma take on many forms and expressions, and Gag Order is, at its heart, an honest and thoughtful reckoning with their nature. Kesha slips between quiet introspection and open rage, and everything in between.

On tracks like “Living In My Head” and “Peace and Quiet” she reckons with the scars that the last few years have left on her mind and openly wonders what it means to be permanently changed by those experiences. She spits a satisfying (if unsettling) amount of venom throughout Gag Order, and it is sometimes hard to tell when her anger is fresh and when it has been bottled up for years and is finally erupting, coming to a head in the bombastic gospel-inflected “Only Love Can Save Us Now.”

As if to accompany her gloves-off honesty, Kesha and her producer Rick Ruben have developed a new sound that takes its cues from her previous work and is still identifiably Kesha, but brings together her rock and pop eras, with bits of folk and Americana creeping in as needed.

The result is impressive. Throughout Gag Order, it oscillates smoothly between measured, contemplative quiet and burning intensity, expertly matching the emotional complexity of the feelings she is putting out into the open for the first time.

Many of the tracks have a compelling psychedelic bent to them. It is used to great effect in the understated, vaguely surreal brilliance of “The Drama,” a track that captures the feeling of a late-night panic attack and which closes out with Kesha ideating about being reincarnated as a housecat for well over a minute.

Kesha’s musings about coming back as a cute, fluffy cat that needs to be sedated on a plane are a clear reminder that she has maintained her wicked, quirky sense of humor despite the decidedly dark tone of the album.

While it’s true that the wild public persona of her early years was to no small extent constructed for her, there was a very real charisma and sense of fun behind it, and that has remained constant in her career. Kesha is aware of this strength, and on this outing, she uses it not just to skewer the people who have hurt her, but also to illuminate the things she’s been able to find comfort in over the years.

The tentative guitar riffs of “Happy” hint that she might be about to close the album out on an optimistic note, but instead we get a heartwrenching song that mourns what the last few years took away from her. With a resignation in her voice, she sings about what she lost as well as the things she might have been able to have or do.

Closing out on this note allows her one last chance to hammer home the album’s most poignant insight, that there is rarely an easy, straightforward way out of a traumatic experience and that sometimes, for all our strength and poise, we have to learn to live with our scars as best we can.

As difficult a listen as it often is, Gag Order features some of Kesha’s best work to date. There’s a moment in “Fine Line,” early in the album, when Kesha spotlights her own complicated relationship with her art, musing, “There’s a fine line between what’s entertaining/ And what’s just exploiting the pain.”

Her grief, pain, and exhaustion are palpable and sometimes so intense as to be uncomfortable to hear, but between her expert delivery and brutal honesty, it is, as always, hard not to sit up and pay attention to her.

Gag Order is available to stream and purchase on all major platforms. Visit

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