Review Summary: A truly sobering look in the mirror.Why the fuck am I praying anyway, if nobody’s listening?
The quote above, taken from the second verse of “Anyone”, was the moment Demi Lovato’s seventh full-length album really started to catch my attention. So many inspirational “lost but now I’m found” records opt to pussyfoot around the personal hardships the artist in question has faced, instead offering the most vague uplifting imagery to… be more universal, I suppose? Some of the most recent examples I can recall would have to be Avril Lavigne’s Head Above Water
and As I Lay Dying’s Shaped by Fire
, two very different records with the same level of disingenuity. The former used Lavigne’s battle with Lyme Disease as inspiration to create an album that was so lyrically non-specific that it could have been created by any other pop artist; meanwhile, the latter is just an ex-felon screaming “I’ve changed!” for 44 minutes - all without mentioning what he actually did for any of those 44 minutes. Lovato, however, takes a much more admirable approach by cutting the bullshit and tackling her demons directly.
When taking a look back at the singer-songwriter’s career, it’s a bit astonishing that this is the same person who sang with The Jonas Brothers in Camp Rock
all those years ago. So much has changed since her Disney days, and her eventual transformation into an R&B/pop heavy-hitter didn’t seem like such a foregone conclusion. The 2000s pop-rock/power-pop trend wasn’t going to last forever, and the artists who did survive often had to dramatically alter their sound to keep swimming with the shifting trends; just listen to Kelly Clarkson’s 2015 record Piece by Piece
for proof of that. And Demi Lovato was one of the ones who survived, but not without some serious scars along the way; as her star was rising, her personal life was slowly crumbling right in plain view of the public. As early as 2010, there were reports of her backing out of tours due to mental struggles, which eventually led her down the rabbithole of self-medicating with drugs and culminated in her 2018 opioid overdose. And as difficult as it is to watch someone struggle so publicly with these demons, I do have an admiration for musicians who can turn those demons into strength and motivation; that is, as long as they do it in a way that’s unique to their story.
While Dancing with the Devil... the Art of Starting Over
does get bogged down with cliches at times (we’ll get to that), it still serves as a very fitting and worthy end to this portion of Lovato’s career arc. The record traverses the wreckage of her personal life while consistently offering up a ray of hope to those who might be dealing with the same problems. To compliment the album’s themes, the music itself is probably the most organically-produced work she’s put out since her pop rock days. It’s still a pop album at its core, mind you, but country and folk-pop elements tend to appear just as frequently as the glossily-produced R&B moments this time around. You’ve got your typical sky-smashing anthems like the Adele-esque R&B-soul stomp of “Dancing with the Devil” and the synth-centric diva extravaganza of “Met Him Last Night” (with guest singer Ariana Grande pushing the vocal gymnastics even further), but the more intimate songs of Dancing with the Devil…
are what really made it so interesting. It’s pretty disarming just how genuine and lovingly-crafted they often are, and they allow for a much greater sense of variety here than on Lovato’s past efforts. Breezy folky acoustic guitar passages (“The Way You Don’t Look at Me”, “The Art of Starting Over”), elegant piano-driven balladry (“ICU”, “Mad World”, “Anyone”) and easy-going pop rock numbers (“Melon Cake”, “The Kind of Lover I Am”) all serve to further flesh out the record’s adventurousness, especially given the comparatively monochromatic Tell Me You Love Me
that preceded it.
It’s in the low-key tunes that the best lyrical and musical gems are really brought out. “ICU” is a heart-wrenching minimalistic piano ballad in which Lovato details the moment she woke up from her overdose; she literally went blind from its effects and couldn’t even recognize her own half-sister right beside her. Combined with the amazing piano work, which incorporates subtle touches of soul and even a little classic gospel, it just might be the best song in Lovato’s discography to date. It gets even better when it’s directly followed by a spoken word interlude and then the upbeat folk-pop recovery anthem “The Art of Starting Over”, giving off the feel of a loose concept album of sorts. “Carefully” takes another step into the recovery narrative, with Lovato telling her next prospective boyfriend or girlfriend to love her even with her damage and baggage; the lyrics and acoustic guitar really humanize an otherwise glossy pop track.
Unfortunately, there are two things that prevent the album from truly reaching its full potential: its length, and occasional musical/lyrical cliches. And both of these coincide with each other a bit. If we got an album of the strongest 12 or 13 tracks and left the more derivative tracks on the cutting room floor, this could have truly been an amazing pop record. But still, we have to get through some unnecessary throwaway pop tracks like “The Kind of Lover I Am” and “15 Minutes,” which just seem meant to fill up time on the album. Not to mention, the former has some of the worst lyrics on the entire record; while I appreciate its gender-inclusivity, the autotuned spoken-word section in which she blurts out “I don't care if you've got a dick I don't care if you've got a WAP” is pretty damn cringy. I feel as though the record would have been better as a slower folk-pop album, rather than trying to shoehorn the songs that seem designed to be arena anthems.
Still, what works on Dancing with the Devil…
is seriously impressive. No matter how glossy or poppy it gets, you can tell that it was made from a place of love and healing, which is something you can’t say about some other “redemption” records out there. After all the hardships and scrutiny Demi Lovato has faced, it’s really nice to hear something that addresses her darkest moments head-on. It may be slightly unfocused and occasionally cliched, but that doesn’t stop it from being the best pop record of the year so far. Hopefully Lovato can keep this momentum going for her next record and deliver something even more poignant, because she’s definitely on the right path with this album.