Lovato’s first album since her near-fatal overdose is at times heart-wrenching and at others defiantly up-beat
content warning: contains mentions of addiction and mental illness
Pop music, especially the commercially friendly kind of pop Demi Lovato has become a master of over the years, is known for dealing in generalities: reducing the universalities of the human condition down to digestible clichés and phrases. For Lovato however, who has become a sort of poster child for the dangers of childhood fame and who made headlines in 2018 after a near-fatal overdose that led to multiple heart-attacks, a stroke and temporary blindness, continuing in this vain seemed near impossible.
Lovato has always been more open about her struggles than many of her contemporaries – and often times has had the messy, intimate details of her life shared publicly whether she likes it or not. In the run up to her latest album, Lovato has taken openness to a new level; in an age of “tell all” documentaries that are little more than PR stunts, Lovato released a genuinely tell-all documentary; recounting in harrowing detail all her many struggles over the year and the impact they had on her loved ones. In one particularly harrowing scene, an interviewer asks Lovato’s friends and family whether they ever considered “giving up” on the singer. Her sister, referencing the singer’s addiction issues, responds “there have been a couple times where I thought if that’s how she wants to go out then God-damn it, let her go out that way”.
‘Dancing With The Devil….The Art of Starting Over’ is split into two parts; the first (‘Dancing With The Devil’) at a little over 10 minutes in length delivers most fully on the expectations set out by the documentary of the same name and by the album’s lead single ‘Anyone’. The emotionally raw and exceptionally vulnerable first three tracks recount the seeming hopelessness of depression and addiction (‘Anyone’), the lies you’re brain tells you to try and get you to relapse (‘Dancing With The Devil’) and Lovato’s experience of waking up blind and not being able to see her sister in hospital (‘ICU’). The first part of the album is deliberately short – the idea is that the album’s focus is not meant to be on dwelling over the past, but looking to the future. Still, it feels incomplete; Lovato’s been through hell-and-back over her 28 years of life; her every stumble has been made into front-page news. On her four-part documentary (and in the DWTD music video) she relives her past in pain-staking detail, yet on the album, almost as soon as Lovato begins to mine the depths of her despair she stops, quickly moving onto the second part of the album – which takes up 47 of the album’s 57 minutes.
The album’s second act – ‘The Art of Starting Over’ – is a determinedly lighter, breezier and forward-looking listening experience than ‘Dancing With The Devil’s’ three tracks. Demi doesn’t exactly shy away from her pain on the second act, nor does she completely avoid talking about her past demons; yet when she does, it’s done more so as a cursory glance in the rear view mirror than as a moment of inward reflection. While many tracks are auto-biographical, the album contains a handful of tunes – like the Noah Cyrus assist ‘Easy’ or the Ariana Grande-written ‘Met Him Last Night’ – that don’t feel as much uniquely specific to Lovato so much as they feel like expressions of the universality of temptation and heart-break. None of ‘Starting Over’s’ 15 tracks contain any moments as heart-wrenching as ‘Anyone’, but there is genuine melancholy on some of it’s deep cuts; ‘The Way You Don’t Look At Me’ recounts past trauma before moving on to remark that a lover’s lack of interest in her is harder to deal with than her past struggles. Meanwhile, ‘Butterfly’s’ chipper beat can’t take away from the heart-ache expressed as Lovato works through her father’s death and his own struggles with addiction.
For the most part though, ‘Starting Over’s’ focus is on catharsis and projecting newfound strength, resilience and self-understanding. ‘Melon Cake’ – whose title is a tragic reference to the hollowed out watermelons with fat-free cream on top that Lovato was forced to eat in place of a traditional cake on her birthdays – climaxes with an anthemic chorus where she declares “No more melon cakes on birthdays” and celebrates finally getting “to do things my way”. Album highlight ‘California Sober’ meanwhile celebrates the new found freedom found by Lovato from using weed and alcohol in moderation (as opposed to the traditional sobriety she maintained up until her near-fatal overdose).
Lovato’s friends and family – as well as the singer herself – have admitted that Lovato’s great about lying about her mental state and her battle with addiction and, the danger with an artist like Lovato – for whom it is impossible to separate everything within this album to everything happening outside of it – is that the admissions of being in a “good place” illicit as much loving scepticism as they do reassurance. For much of the album, Lovato projects an image of enlightenment, but it’s refreshing when she admits that, like any other other 28 year old – especially one who’s gone through as much as she has – she still hasn’t got it all figured out. On the distorted spoken word outro of ‘The Kind Of Lover I Am’, Lovato’s goes from saying “I just wanna love” in one line to saying “I’m good though, I don’t need anybody” on the other. It’s the kind of light-hearted admission of not-knowing that allows a much needed moment to relax and laugh on an album that you can’t help but remember is only here because of a medical miracle that allowed it’s creator to survive against all odds.
And, ultimately, that’s what shines throughout all of ‘Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over’ – from the heart-wrenching early moments, the proclamations of being “good” and the moments of both vulnerability and anger (’15 Minutes’) – Lovato may not always hit the perfect note (metaphorically that is, her vocal performance is faultless), but the album’s mere existence feels miraculous. The album is Lovato’s most mature, well-structured, thematically rich project to date. It’s impossible to separate the album from the context against which it was released – which makes it harder to judge the album or judge whether Lovato’s re-assurances ring true – the album is still, at it’s core, a testament to Lovato’s phenomenal survival and continued growth and, that’s more than enough for now.
Best Tracks: Anyone, Dancing With The Devil, ICU (Madison’s Lullabye), What Other People Say (w/ Sam Fischer), 15 Minutes, My Girlfriends are My Boyfriends (Ft. Saweetie) , California Sober
Worst Track: Met Him Last Night (ft. Ariana Grande)