Demi Lovato comes back to life, music with ‘Dancing With The Devil…The Art Of Starting Over’

Courtesy of Frank Schwichtenberg via Wikimedia Commons.

Demi Lovato, the queen of comebacks herself, has finally mastered “the art of starting over” with a candid new redemption album and fresh lease on life and . The 28-year-old popstar is no stranger to struggle, having dealt with a plethora of hardships enough for multiple lifetimes: an abusive father, bullying, sexual assault, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, depression and substance abuse. In July 2018, Lovato’s demons drove her to a near-fatal heroin overdose. She consequently suffered three strokes, a heart attack and permanent brain damage that impaired her vision. Doctors later determined that she was in fact five to 10 minutes away from death on the day of her overdose. Even after years of addiction and her brush with death, though, Lovato’s stunning vocal instrument has remained entirely unscathed and has even grown stronger, which is nothing short of miraculous. 

The powerhouse vocalist released her seventh studio album, “Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over,” on April 2. The record addresses a harrowing chapter leading up to 2018 and explores her journey coming back to life after narrowly escaping the infamous “27 Club.” “DWTDTAOSO” is a flawed but refreshing relaxation of the rigidity that used to define her career. Lovato trades strictly electronic pop production and recycled pop lyrics for a multi-genre album that embraces nostalgic live instrumentation and highlights complex and poetic lyricism. The uninhibited sound reflects a newfound fluidity in her own life, and feels like swapping tight black leather pants for breathable yellow culottes. 

The “Dancing With a Devil” section is a prelude to the bulk of the album, “The Art of Starting over.” In “Anyone,” “Dancing With the Devil” and “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye),” Lovato cries for help, confesses her sins and dedicates a tear-jerking moment to her baby sister, Madison De La Garza. These tracks spotlight the classic, raw, Aguilera-esque vocals packed with sky-high notes and effortless runs that Demi fans have come to know and worship. “Dancing With the Devil” is a perfect (half) title track; the R&B and jazz-piano-infused tune sonically captures the darkness of Lovato’s relapse with drugs and alcohol that almost led to her downfall. “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)” gives a chilling account of the moment she woke up legally blind in the hospital and couldn’t identify her little sister sitting beside her bed. “I was blind but now I see clearly/ I see you,” she sings to Madison, plainly alluding to the quintessential Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.”

However, the album is no sob story. After those three intro tracks, Lovato transitions into “The Art of Starting Over,” which is primarily, as she puts it, “ethereal dream pop.” The songs are breezy and bop-worthy, appropriate for cruising through Malibu with the windows down on a sunny day. It’s a new sound for Lovato, who has experimented with everything from pop-rock to R&B to made-for-radio cookie cutters, and it suits her. After her sophisticated pop/R&B sixth studio album, “Tell Me You Love Me,” it was hard to predict what style the singer would conquer next. The record seemed peak maturity, peak serious, peak adult Demi. Of course, the answer was simple—the only direction to go was less serious. In “Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over,” we see a glimpse of the “old” Demi at the beginning, but then we are introduced to the “new” Demi. She’s light-hearted and fun. She’s single and fabulous, having a good time with her girls in  “California Sober,” proudly queer and finally living her truth in a “Good Place.” 

With the exception of “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” with Saweetie, the collaborations are some of the weakest links of the record. The highly anticipated Ariana Grande duet seems out of place and a lot more characteristic of Grande than Lovato, with its overwhelming drama of strings and synths backing playful, but predictable, lyrics. Grande wrote the track with Lovato in mind—not alongside her—and that much is obvious without checking the song credits. Without a doubt, the pair of top notch female vocalists complement each other vocally, but the album would have benefited from a better contextual fit. The Noah Cyrus collab “Easy” was also disappointing; although there’s nothing wrong with the song itself, neither Cyrus nor Lovato had a hand in its writing and that is again blatant. This ballad about relationships ending is not “ethereal dream pop,” nor is it especially personal to either of the singers, though their voices do sound spectacular together. Similarly, “What Other People Say” is more driven by Sam Fischer than Lovato, and the generic pop song (with a slight country twang) just doesn’t belong with the rest of the album’s deeply confessional and whimsical pop. 

The only successful collaboration is Saweetie’s. It’s the duo we didn’t know we needed, but oh, does it quench that pandemic-era thirst for a high-caliber club hit powered by badass women. “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” is the certified banger of the record, and Saweetie kills her lady empowering, “Best Friend”-vibes verse. The bop is well-positioned to be the single girls’ anthem of summer 2021 with its pop gold hook (“My girlfriends are my boyfriend but we’re never gonna break up”) and Lovato’s pointed staccato delivery over an electronic dance beat. 

With the likes of Julia Michaels, Madison Love and Justin Tranter, the record is packed with superstar songwriters who are the secrets behind the success of A-list artists like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Camila Cabello and pretty much everyone else on the top 40. If you’re familiar with their work, you can detect the trio’s signature sharp lyrical prowess and knack for unusual, catchy melodies throughout the album. However, Lovato’s own writing contributions are the moments that really make the record; her story hardly needs embellishment. 

The singer takes control of her own narrative in the album’s crowning jewel “The Art of Starting Over.” The light-R&B groovy track sounds like fresh air and new beginnings. “Give me a pen/ I’m rewriting another ending,” she sings in a controlled, breathy tone (a neat contrast from her signature power belt), “Guess I’m mastering the art of starting over. This other title track calls for snapping along, dancing around your room and celebrating Lovato’s newfound comeback.

In “The Way You Don’t Look At Me” and “Melon Cake,” the star offers musical diary entries about her decades-long battle with anorexia and bulimia. In the first, she candidly admits to losing 10 pounds in two weeks after forcing herself to. In the latter, she tells the haunting story of an emotionally abusive team who encouraged her to eat melon cake instead of birthday cake and fired an assistant for buying her a chocolate bar. Now, the singer’s saying, “No more melon cakes on birthdays/ No more barricades in doorways/ Finally get to do things my way.”

Although it’s not the focus of the project, we get glimpses of Lovato’s single and queer love life in several songs. “The Kind of Lover I Am,” is a jam draped in daydreamy reverb that details all of the singer’s relationship quirks. With chill acoustic guitar and airy drums, she croons with confident ease, “Doesn’t matter you’re a woman or a man/ That’s the kinda lover I am.” The track illustrates six years of immense personal growth since “Cool For the Summer,” the 2015 hit where Lovato subtly alluded to experimenting with women and “not telling her mother.” This time around the queer tune is sweet, simple and unabashedly honest. 

“15 Minutes” savagely blasts the singer’s ex-fiance, actor Max Ehrich. The couple’s engagement was brief, only lasting for a few months of quarantine before it became clear that Ehrich was only interested in his “15 minutes” of fame. The bridge, “Cryin’ in Malibu, cryin’ in Malibu/ How could you, how could you seems like a direct reference to Ehrich’s alleged publicity stunt when he cried for paparazzi at the beach where he initially proposed. Lovato’s unforgiving sing-growl on the chorus and the blunt diss makes Ehrich the butt of the joke; he likely regrets his “15 minutes” now.

“Good Place” is a satisfying ending to the story where Lovato assures us she’s finally doing well, but “California Sober” is the golden track of “DWTDTAOSO” and best embodies exactly where she’s at in this new era of life post her momentary death. “I’m California sober/ It doesn’t have to mean the growing part is over/ No it ain’t black and white, it’s all of the colors that I only just discovered. Lovato finds freedom through balance; she no longer restricts or binges food, limits her love life to men or entirely denies herself weed here and there. In the past, she had to be skinny, heteronormative and stone-cold sober, and those “black and whites” were the vehicle that nearly drove her to her deathbed. Amidst ongoing backlash over her unconventional recovery plan, the star pleads with fans to understand that life is complicated, she’s complicated and everyone should do what works for them. Finally, three years after waking up legally blind, she sees all of the colors. “DWTDTAOSO,” much like Demi, is complex, imperfect and triumphant. 

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