Demi Lovato Retraces Her Path Through Hell On Her Way Toward Brighter Horizons

Angelo Kritikos

Demi Lovato Retraces Her Path Through Hell On Her Way Toward Brighter Horizons

Angelo Kritikos

Write what you know, they say. For Demi Lovato, it’s a harrowing prompt. The singer and actor has been through so much trauma in the years since the Disney Channel’s Camp Rock made her a child star in 2008: addiction, depression, disordered eating, self-harm, sexual assault, the psychological burden of fame in the social media era. Three years ago, after a decade in the spotlight, it all culminated in an overdose that brought her to the brink of death. It would be all but impossible for Lovato to ignore all this on her first album since the overdose. Instead, on these new songs she dives straight into her messy circumstances and attempts to plot a course toward a better future.

Dancing With The Devil…The Art Of Starting Over: It’s all right there in the title. There are songs on Lovato’s new album — particularly an opening trio of tracks billed as the prelude — that relive the pain and desperation of her past with a bleak frankness that plays like a network primetime equivalent of Julien Baker’s prestige despair chronicle Little Oblivions. This impulse is taken to extremes on the first of two title tracks, “Dancing With The Devil,” a sort of Broadway-ready Bond theme on which Lovato relives her relapse into drinking and drugs. In the video, she even re-creates the night of her overdose, singing from a hospital bed with a breathing tube in her nose, a display that can’t help but feel exploitative even though Lovato co-directed it with Michael D. Ratner.

Then there are the songs that present her fragile steps forward with a hard-won optimism, like the other title track, “The Art Of Starting Over,” a dreamy pop-rocker that Lovato has described as “the perfect driving song.” It culminates with her exclaiming, “I let the darkness out!” In fact, the darkness creeps back in intermittently throughout the album, threatening to upend Lovato’s stability, as on the sleek but overblown Ariana Grande duet “Met Him Last Night.” Both the grim and the redemptive tracks feel honest; so does the way the tracklist toggles between them, even if it makes for tonal whiplash sometimes. Recovery is not a straight line, right? Still, the distance between where she is at the start and the end of the album is significant, and the trajectory it traces out is ultimately one of progress.

Dancing With The Devil begins in the thick of one of Lovato’s darkest moments. On “Anyone,” accompanied by nothing but a piano, she delivers the most nakedly emotional vocal performance of her career. Although she debuted it in front of a large crowd and a live television audience at the 2020 Grammys, the song is a portrait of someone hopelessly alone, a frantic prayer delivered in searing wails. “Anyone! Please send me anyone!” Lovato howls, pushing her powerhouse voice until it frays. “Lord is there anyone? I need someone!” Like Justin Bieber, another former child star who has worked to steer his life out of its once-tragic narrative, Lovato’s music often errs on the saccharine side, even at its most frank. But even more than Bieber’s thematically similar “Lonely,” “Anyone” bursts through any and all layers of artifice with a raw execution the prioritizes authenticity over precision. It’s a remarkable way to begin an album.

The closing track “Good Place,” one of several co-written by Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, is calmer but nearly as affecting. This time the accompaniment is acoustic guitar, and Lovato’s voice is breathy and composed yet still teeming with emotion. “With a whole lot of work, whole lot of hurt, whole lot of grace,” she sings, “Now I’m in a good place.” It’s the last thing she utters on Dancing With The Devil, in a meek and tender tone that suggests she’s still not quite ready to believe it. Like “Anyone,” the song is vague enough that any person who’s been through the wringer could apply it to their own life, but Lovato performs it with such simmering intensity that you’d never mistake it for anything but autobiography. Is it melodramatic? Maybe, but Lovato’s life circumstances merit that. Is it on-the-nose to end the album by declaring, “I’m in a good place”? Perhaps, but if you’re not interested in Lovato’s blunt perspective on her own life, this is not the album for you.

As a listener, the distance between those two checkpoints can feel daunting. Dancing With The Devil spans 19 tracks and 57 minutes, and Lovato released a deluxe edition of it this week featuring a bonus track and three live acoustic songs. It never ceases to be a lot, even when the mood is fun. Lovato spends multiple tracks unpacking her issues with food and body image, her queer awakening, her fear of disappointing her loved ones, and her ongoing recovery from addiction. The music is sometimes brash and playful, sometimes solemn, a set of incongruous tracks held together by Lovato’s big personality and a consistent theme of healing that has not been easy or complete. But if the mass of music here can feel overwhelming and incoherent, in isolation it’s easy to imagine almost any of these songs becoming Top 40 radio staples.

Some of the best songs on the record are the ones that reckon with body image, particularly a pair of consecutive tracks written with Michaels, Tranter, and producer Eren Cannata. “I’ve lost 10 pounds in two weeks/ ‘Cause I told me I shouldn’t eat,” she begins on “The Way You Don’t Look At Me,” an acoustic lament about not feeling seen but also fearing exposure. The mood is more exultant on “Melon Cake,” in which Lovato lets go of the drive to be “Barbie-sized” and all the intense dietary restrictions that came with it, like the time someone in her entourage was fired for having “chocolate in the backseat.” On the chorus she rejoices, “No more melon cake on birthdays!” — a reference to her former management’s insistence that she eat a slice of watermelon with whipped cream on top rather than celebrate with sweets. Even for people who’ve never had a team of handlers charged with keeping them in Disney shape, these are some of the most relatable disclosures on the album, the kinds of subjects few pop stars have dared to sing about. Neither song is as musically engaging as Lovato’s biggest hits like “Cool For The Summer” and “Sorry Not Sorry,” but the memorable lyrics carry the average music.

The tracks that address Lovato’s current dating situation also stand out. “Carefully” unfolds like tastefully toned-down EDM, centered on the refrain, “If you think you can handle me/ Please handle me carefully.” Similar imagery pops up on the next song, the loopy and upbeat guitar-pop glide “The Kind Of Lover I Am,” on which she professes, “Doesn’t matter, you’re a woman or a man/ That’s the kind of lover I am/ You can safely put your heart in my hands/ That’s the kind of lover I am.” In her spoken-word outro, holding back laughter through intense vocal processing, Lovato insists that she’s actually quite satisfied being single for now. She reaffirms that notion on the flickering Kesha-gone-Billie Eilish club track “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriends,” an ode to friendship that boasts a timely verse from the newly single Saweetie.

It’s touching to hear Lovato sing about letting down her younger sister on “ICU (Madison’s Lullaby)” and her mother on “What Other People Say,” and despite edging into the treacly corners of her sound, both songs are good showcases for her fiery, gospel-inflected voice. But by the time she’s emoting bombastically with Noah Cyrus on “Easy” and leaning into a tired metaphor on “Butterfly,” the inspirational balladry starts to become overbearing. And did this album really need yet another somber piano-led cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” buried 17 tracks deep? Reader, it resoundingly did not. There are enough throwaways like that sprinkled throughout that you may end up wishing for a bit more editing, even on an album designed to let it all hang out.

Probably the most eyebrow-raising song here is “California Sober,” an undistinguished midtempo number that finds Lovato doubling down on her recent insistence that moderate alcohol and marijuana use is working for her. “I’m California sober/ It doesn’t have to mean the growin’ part is over,” she insists. On “Dancing With The Devil,” she describes how quickly one glass of wine can spiral into all kinds of substance abuse for a recovering addict. So it’s natural to be concerned that Lovato is lying to herself, in denial about dancing with the devil once again. Ultimately, though, it’s not for an outsider to say whether she’s on the right track in her personal life. All we can do is assess whether those struggles have translated into compelling pop music, and on balance, The Art Of Starting Over succeeds on that front. Here’s hoping she just keeps getting better from here.

CHART WATCH

No one can ever call Lil Nas X a one-hit wonder again. Technically, he already cracked the top five after “Old Town Road” with “Panini,” but now he’s tacked on a #1 single as unforgettable as the one that put him on the map. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” becomes the 51st song to debut at #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — and the 16th in the past year. It’s LNX’s second #1 hit and third in the top 10. The song had 46.9 million streams and 21,000 downloads, with 1.1 million radio airplay impressions.

Last week’s #1, the Justin Bieber/Daniel Caesar/Giveon team-up “Peaches,” falls to #2. At #3 is Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open,” which has lingered near the top of the chart for weeks without actually topping it. Two songs that have reached #1, Cardi B’s “Up” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” are down to #4 and #5. The rest of the top 10: the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears,” Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating,” the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood,” and Pop Smoke’s “What You Know Bout Love.”

Over on the Billboard 200, Rod Wave scores his first #1 album with SoulFly. The album tallied 130,000 equivalent album units, nearly doubling the first-week total for last year’s #2-peaking Pray 4 Love, his previous chart best. After Justin Bieber’s Justice at #2 comes a #3 debut for NF’s Clouds (The Mixtape) via 86,000 units. My Savior, Carrie Underwood’s Easter-timed album of gospel covers, enters at #4 with 73,000 units. After Morgan Wallen, the Weeknd, and Pop Smoke comes a #8 debut for Memphis rap duo Young Dolph and Key Glock’s Dum And Dummer 2 via 36,000 units. AJR’s OK Orchestra also logs a #10 debut with 32,000 units; it’s the trio’s second top-10 album following 2019’s #8-peaking Neotheater.

POP FIVE

Olivia Rodrigo – “deja vu”
The playfully petty delivery, the hyper-specific lyricism, the sense that I’m hearing Lorde riffing on “No Surprises,” the walloping fuzzed-out arrangement, the bizarre ongoing Billy Joel subplot, the entrancing music video: It’s all good.

BTS – “Film Out”
I am a fan of BTS breathily vibing over what sounds like a Sigur Rós instrumental at first.

Chloe George – “Ghost Town (Voice Memo)”
Another TikTok success story: Relative unknown Chloe George recorded a trembling piano cover of 070 Shake’s part from Kanye West’s “Ghost Town,” snippets of it went viral, and now the whole thing has been properly released. This emotive bedroom-pop-goes-mainstream sound is apparently sticking around.

Major Lazer – “Titans” (Feat. Sia & Labrinth)
Maybe this was left over from the Labrinth/Sia/Diplo LSD project that kind of fizzled out? You can see why they would want to salvage it. The writing and production are just off-kilter enough to make another rote Sia hook feel vibrant.

Lindsay Lohan – “Lullaby” (Feat. Aliana Lohan)
Much better than “new Lindsay Lohan single released as an NFT” had to be!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • BTS released a statement condemning the recent wave of anti-Asian violence. [Twitter]
  • HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, putting management of BTS, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato under the same company. [Variety]
  • Taylor Swift revealed the tracklist for her new version of Fearless, which will include a collab with Keith Urban. [Tumblr]
  • The Weeknd auctioned a new song as an NFT. [The Weeknd]
  • The Grammys are moving to a Monday night (1/31) for 2022. [THR]
  • Pharrell mourned his cousin Donovon Lynch, who was one of the people killed in the Virginia Beach shootings last month. [NBC12]
  • Dua Lipa, Arlo Parks, and Celeste lead the BRIT Awards nominatios with three each. [Guardian]
  • Diddy hologrammed into his son’s 23rd birthday party. [TMZ]
  • Bruno Mars is partnering with Fortnite on a new emote. [THR]
  • AJR did “Way Less Sad” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
  • Here are some photos of Justin Bieber’s visit to an LA prison to talk about Jesus. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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