Through all of her trials and tribulations, it seems unbelievable that Demi Lovato has been a cultural force long enough that she’s now releasing her eighth studio album. Last year’s Dancing With The Devil saw her return after a four-year hiatus rife with tragedy, continuing to showcase some of the best vocals in the game and penning a couple heart-wrenching ballads describing her situation at the time amidst some inconsistent swings at pop radio. Now, Lovato is going back to where she began: as Disney’s rock-oriented alternative to their numerous pop princesses. That said, there’s absolutely nothing Disney about this – almost to a fault. Lovato’s trendy foray into pop-punk – mercifully, minus Travis Barker – gives her more opportunities than ever to show the stellar heights of her powerhouse set of pipes, but the songwriting and attitudes on display across the board can often feel uncomfortably juvenile. It took Lovato a little bit longer to fall into the typical Disney-star trap of trying far too hard to be taken seriously as an edgy, adult artist, but she’s finally arrived. Luckily, unlike some of her peers, she’s got a lot of raw musical talent to bring things back in the other direction.
Since this album’s getting quite the positive reaction, I’ll get my most controversial statement out of the way early: would I be insane to suggest that the opening track “FREAK” is even more clunky and heavy-handed than Tones and I’s opening track trying to achieve similar aims on her much-derided debut? Lovato sets out to prove just how much of a freak she is by interpolating circus music into her melody and teaming up with an actual clown in Yungblud, but the biggest issue with the opener is the mixing. The chorus on the track is structured to let her powerful vocals shine, but it seems like the producers were so interested in kicking things off with an unexpected hard-rock explosion that her final belted notes feel buried in the sludge of guitars. Oak Felder, the lead producer across the board, is a pop mastermind, and it’s clear that this isn’t his area of expertise. Lead single “SKIN OF MY TEETH” plays into her pop instincts a little more and delivers one of the most memorable choruses on the project, but hearing her surface-level descriptions of her experiences with addiction after penning such poignant tracks before feels shallow – especially with an unearned F-bomb in the mix. Still, there’s something commendable about just how much Lovato attacks these performances, leaning into her inflections and pushing her vocals to the limit in more ways than one. “SUBSTANCE” is the standout of the opening run of tracks – it feels like the only time that Lovato’s attempts at shock value are genuinely shocking, and the graphic and visceral imagery that she touches on being on one of the poppier tracks, adorned with trap hi-hats, makes it all the more effective – the high notes she hits on the final chorus raised the goosebumps, as well.
The track “EAT ME” has been one of the most widely celebrated tracks on the project, which is interesting, because it’s curiously not even the last time that it feels like Lovato and her team are playing off of dubstep on this tracklist. With a jarring tempo shift to an obnoxious, belted chorus on a single note and a demand to mourn her dead older self that only serves to make this listener sad, it would feel a little insulting to her longtime listeners if she didn’t also include a compelling list of industry demands on crafting her perfect image – something we now know led rapidly to her downfall. The title track “HOLY FVCK” introduces Lovato’s running theme of playing with the intersection of religion and sexuality, something she does a lot better on the track “HEAVEN,” containing some well-selected Biblical references and a soaring chorus where she celebrates her eternal damnation rather than awkwardly delivered syllables, shoehorned metaphors and the word “sexorcist.” The first excellent tracks on the project are “HAPPY ENDING,” a much more touching and meaningful song about her struggles with addiction that instrumentally applies a less-is-more approach and lets her earn her big moments, and “29,” as Lovato powerfully calls out an ex-partner for predatory behaviour after finding herself at the age when he made the same choices. Lovato is audibly emotional while delivering the final chorus, and the playful attitude towards absolutely demolishing the song’s target at the beginning is a lot of fun as well.
For all of the attempts at incendiary lyricism on this project, there are a couple moments where it feels like we’re listening to a middle schooler who just learned a new swear word or stumbled across an adult website for the first time. The overload of raunchy puns on the tracks “CITY OF ANGELS” and “COME TOGETHER,” the latter of which is mixed almost as badly as the opener, make the tracks feel like they belong in a teen musical. “BONES” is one of the most musically adventurous tracks on the project – though it does contain that second dubstep breakdown at its conclusion – as the guitars emulate more of a dance groove, Lovato issuing come-ons to her partner, while “WASTED” is another easy standout on the project that shows just how great of a writer she can be when she wants to be. Given her situation, she mines new, compelling depths out of the tired comparison of love to drugs with another impressively delivered chorus, finding a high that’s hopefully safer in her nascent relationship.
The project continues to a strong finish. “DEAD FRIENDS” is another that benefits from listeners being aware of Lovato’s situation, understanding where the combination of bluntness and tangible emotion on the chorus is coming from – as she is lucky to be alive herself, mourning friends who have passed on comes with an added degree of survivor’s guilt. “HELP ME” starts off with one of the more soulful performances on the album, but a feature appearance from Dead Sara quickly sends things off the rails, before “FEED” and “4 EVER 4 ME” bring things back. The former finds her drawing inspiration from an unexpected source once again, as she wrings meaning out of the “2 wolves inside of me” proverb that’s been memed to death, while the closer feels closest to her older ballads, sampling the Goo Goo Dolls and offering a final toast to her newfound romantic happiness.
While it might not stand up as one of Lovato’s better albums from a musical standpoint, you certainly have to respect the degree to which she’s taking a huge risk. As she continues on and likely steps even further into her new persona and image, there’s a solid chance that it’ll get better with time – she certainly has the voice for it.
Favourite Tracks: WASTED, 29, MY HAPPY ENDING, DEAD FRIENDS
Least Favourite Track: FREAK