Demi Lovato – ‘Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over’ review: raw, cathartic pop

"The non-official soundtrack" to the star's documentary Dancing with the Devil deals with heavy themes, but also finds her sounding playful and free

Demi Lovato is done pretending. It’s no coincidence that the pop star’s seventh album shares part of its title with her startling YouTube documentary series, Dancing with the Devil. Lovato has described it as “like the non-official soundtrack to the documentary”, an incredibly raw affair that explores her deeply traumatising experiences of sexual assault, years of substance abuse and a near-fatal heroin overdose in July 2018. When Lovato sings “I was blind, but now I see clearly – I see you” on a track called ‘ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)’, it’s more than wordplay and a metaphor: the singer was declared temporarily legally blind when she awoke from her overdose in an intensive care unit (ICU). She recently told People that she is still suffering from blind spots.

So while most supposedly ‘confessional’ pop albums are really just mildly revealing, this one really goes deep. It begins with a trio of strikingly candid tracks that Lovato calls a “prelude” to the album proper. ‘Anyone’ is an unselfconscious cry for help – “Why the fuck am I praying anyway, if nobody’s listening?” – while ‘Dancing With The Devil’ addresses her substance abuse head-on. “It’s just a little white line, I’ll be fine,” Lovato sings. “But soon, that little white line is a little glass pipe.”

And then ‘ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)’ finds her building bridges with her little sister after that drug-induced “fall from grace”. In theory, it’s weird for the album’s fourth track to be called an ‘Intro’, but in this case it kind of makes sense. “Let me take you on a journey – one that sheds the skin of my past and embodies the person I am today,” Lovato says at this point. “This is the art of starting over.”

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What follows is musically varied and lyrically unvarnished: an album of ‘take me as I am’ jams that to an extent recalls Pink‘s career-making 2001 album ‘Missundaztood’. Lovato references her eating disorder on the folky ‘You Don’t Look At Me’ and admits on the deceptively breezy-sounding ‘California Sober’ that she’s “tired of being known for my sickness.” When she sings, on ‘Carefully’, “I’m strong in a way that I know how to show you my fragile”, the sense of hard-won self-acceptance is palpable. Elsewhere, ‘Met Him Last Night’ teams her with Arianda Grande for a dark and atmospheric electro bop: the “him” in question is the Devil. ‘Easy’, a bombastic duet with Noah Cyrus, is one of several songs on which Lovato really shows off her impressive vocal chops.

Though there are also features from rising stars Sam Fischer (on the plaintive ‘What Other People Say’) and Saweetie, who adds a crisp rap to the R&B-leaning ‘My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriends’, this album never seems to be chasing Spotify streams. Nothing here slaps as hard as Lovato’s past electro bangers ‘Heart Attack’ (2013) and ‘Cool For The Summer’ (2015), but there are definitely potential hits: ‘Lonely People’ is an outsiders’ anthem every bit as catchy as Kesha‘s 2017 fist-clencher ‘Learn To Let Go’, while ‘Melon Cake’ spins pop-rock gold from a poignant personal memory: for years, Lovato was so consumed by her eating disorder that she didn’t have birthday cake, only watermelon topped with fat-free whipped cream. The fact that the latter doesn’t sound dissimilar to recent Jonas Brothers tunes is a cute full-circle moment – after all, Lovato’s breakthrough came opposite the JoBros in the Camp Rock movies.

It’s generally pretty heavy stuff, but there are flashes of humour on ‘The Kind of Lover I Am’, a lightly funky number with a vibe not dissimilar to that of Harry Styles’ 2019 smash ‘Watermelon Sugar’. “I’m not the type to call you out and fight in front of your friends,” Lovato sings. “But oh Lord, we’ll be having some words in my Mercedes Benz.” After all she’s been through – and sung about on this album – who could object to a tiny humblebrag? She ends the song with a spoken word bit on which she fully embraces her pansexuality, telling us with a wink: “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick, I don’t care if you’ve got a WAP /, I just wanna love.” Fans will be thrilled to hear her sounding so playful.

With 19 tracks stretching out over 57 minutes, this album is probably too long: Lovato’s heartfelt but not totally necessary cover of Tears for Fears‘ ‘Mad World’ could have got the chop. But because her honesty is so unselfconscious and compelling, it never becomes a slog. When she sings “I’m growing into who I’m meant to be” on penultimate track ‘Butterfly’, Lovato is presumably referring to the personal growth she’s justifiably proud of.  Still, the lyric could apply equally well to her musical evolution. Powerful, purposeful and uncompromising, this is her definitive artistic statement to date. Demi Lovato is done pretending, and it really suits her.

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Release date: April 2

Record label: Island Records

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