Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” appeared on a couple of ballots—including mine, briefly—for Slant’s Best Singles of the 1980s earlier this year. The song didn’t make the final cut, but it seems we’re not the only ones who are fans of the bucket banger’s 1981 arena ballad, as Ke$ha—or, rather, the Bird and the Bee’s Greg Kurstin—lifted it wholesale for “Love Into the Light,” the closing track on the pop singer’s sophomore long player, Warrior. It’s one of several moments on the album that genuinely attempt to expand Ke$ha’s limited sonic palette, which would be surprising if she hadn’t been boasting to the press about her personal and creative growth, to say nothing of her promise of inventing a new genre, which she’s coined “cock pop.”
Most of Warrior sticks to Ke$ha’s tried-and-true formula: more misfit anthems, like the title track, a co-write with her mother that, following in the dance steps of her hit “We R Who We R,” skews more toward one-size-fits-all self-empowerment than the self-satisfied, Gen Y-specific ambivalence of her debut; more songs, like lead single “Die Young,” with Auto-Tuned sing-talk verses celebrating debauchery; and, of course, references to teenie weenies, mustache rides, and fucking ghosts. There are some forward-minded moments, like the Enya-on-bath-salts background vocals of “C’mon” and an amusing refrain of “Put your mother-fuckin’ phones up” toward the end of “All That Matters (The Beautiful Life),” but aside from the bonus track “Out Alive,” few songs have the urgency of “Blow,” Ke$ha’s best single to date.
The second half of the album boasts collaborations with Iggy Pop (the “Ballroom Blitz”-style “Dirty Love”), the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney (the rootsy “Wonderland”), and the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas and Fab Moretti (the faithfully Strokes-esque “Only Wanna Be with You”). En masse, it’s an impressive lineup, one that speaks to Ke$ha’s previously closeted good taste. And if individual songs aren’t exactly revelatory, they at least prove there’s an actual beating heart beneath all that baby oil and glitter, specifically the bonus track “Past Lives,” one of several songs recorded with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, on which Ke$ha laments a love affair that’s traversed an ice age, the Crusades, and the building of the pyramids. For all the ostensible “growth” and experimentation on display, though, Ke$ha doesn’t have much to show for it. If she’s going to backbench all of her high-profile collaborators in favor of more of the same from Dr. Luke and Max Martin, she’s ultimately just the equivalent of a groupie with a major-label record deal.