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Demi Lovato review, Dancing with the Devil: Pop artist embraces independence on confessional new album

There’s no doubting the emotional authenticity of Lovato’s words and delivery

Helen Brown
Friday 02 April 2021 06:30 BST
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Demi Lovato performing at the Grammys
Demi Lovato performing at the Grammys (Getty for The Recording Academy)
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Demi Lovato doesn’t pull her punches. Vocally, she’s always been a knockout. And in her powerful new docuseries, Dancing with the Devil, she’s frank about the drug addiction that led to her overdosing on heroin laced with fentanyl in July 2018. She lays into Hollywood culture, which pressured her to be thin, chaste and sober while taking no action against an actor who she says raped her. She’s also spoken about later initiating sex with both her rapist and the drug dealer who assaulted her after she was incapacitated. This is a common response by victims of sexual abuse as they try to reclaim power, but one that often leads to silencing shame. Lovato’s clear explanation of her behaviour is likely to help many.

The candour of the docuseries was so striking that, by contrast, the conventional pop of the accompanying album can seem a little underwhelming. There’s no doubting the emotional authenticity of Lovato’s words and delivery. But the record is a long, mostly mid-tempo journey, which chugs along with melodies and easygoing arrangements that don’t reliably rise to the meet the challenge of the powerful story Lovato has to tell.

The best of confessional pop – think Beyoncé’s Lemonade – finds an original sound for an original experience and demands the listener’s attention. Nobody needed to know anything about “Becky with the Long Hair” to feel Queen Bey’s raw contempt for her cheating husband’s casual misuse of “sidechicks”. But I suspect that listeners unaware of Lovato’s story are unlikely to be pulled too deeply into these songs when they crop up on the drive-time radio shows for which they are probably destined.

For those who do know – and for those affected by similar issues – I hope this record offers a warm and supportive safe space to work through feelings stirred. The record opens with the intense piano ballad, “Anyone”, which she choked up singing at the 2020 Grammy Award Ceremony. The daughter of a drug addict and a former cheerleader turned Disney child star admits: “I used to crave the world’s attention/ I think I cried too many times/ I just need some more affection…” As she reaches the chorus – a roar of isolation and self-hatred – she sounds like a woman who has the strength to blow the Disney castle down, turret by carefully aimed turret.

(Although I wonder if she also still sounds like a modern Disney princess, emoting her on-brand empowered ire in the most perfect places, like Frozen’s Elsa. Now that Disney is selling “difficult women” it’s hard to know how she could win.)

From “Anyone”, she slinks into the sultry, organ-backed addiction-romance of “Dancing With the Devil”. As she describes how “a little white line” can lead to a “little glass pipe”, her subtlety of tone suggests that Lovato – like Lady Gaga – could smoulder rather gloriously if given some jazz standards to play with. But its message about the escalation of drug abuse does seem at odds with her later embrace of moderation (instead of abstinence) on the breezily forgettable “California Sober” (a term popularised in 2019 to describe giving up harder drugs for softer ones). There’s the sweet “ICU”, written for the sister she couldn’t actually see after waking up blind from her overdose. And “Lonely People” has a properly walloping tune, with lyrics that acknowledge the pain but see Lovato refusing to wallow by “dancing at a pity party”.

There’s lots of independence. She celebrates her pansexuality to the upbeat strum and breathy sighs of “The Kind of Lover I Am”, where she sings that it “doesn't matter if you’re a woman or a man… or you could be anything in between/ I might not believe in monogamy” but still offers to “hold you, console you, really get to know you/ with the passion of a one night stand”.

“Melon Cake” finds her refusing to be served any more cakes made of fruit by those who sought to control her weight. Her duet with Aussie singer Sam Fischer “What Other People Say” has a gospel sway and thumped drum, as the pair lament how far LA has taken them from their true selves. “Carefully” combines acoustic guitar and a Nineties electro-pulse (think aquamarine shades of William Orbit’s work with Madonna and All Saints), as she warns outsiders “approach with caution/ I can get overwhelming… Cause I’m strong in a way that I’m able to show my fragile”. Yes, there’s a lot of therapy-speak, but Lovato grounds it with her warmth.

Lovato doesn’t add much to a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” beyond reworking the 2001 Gary Jules version – although she is at pains to stress the word “best” in the line: “The dreams in which I’m dying are the BEST I’ve ever had.” A potential warning sign from a young woman who has nearly died once and says she’s on the path to recovery.

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Still, Lovato repeatedly assures us she is doing well and (after a brief engagement with the fame-hungry actor who’s dusted off on the brisk “15 Minutes”) is happy alone. She’s said that before and it hasn’t been true. But I hope it is now.

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