album review

Demi Lovato’s Redemption Arc Begins

Lovato in the music video for “Dancing With the Devil.” Photo: YouTube

You never know what’s hiding behind a person’s smile — whether a chipper veneer is a genuine expression of a person’s bubbly nature, a front for someone who’s suffering, or a lure from someone harboring dark intentions. People are unpredictable, capable of fooling even the best judges of character, and sometimes you don’t find out what they’re really going through until they lose control. The past few years have been a rollercoaster for everyone on the planet. (It is strange, still, to be able to say this and really, truly mean it.) Stresses multiplied, chaos ensued, and people went to great lengths to cope. No one got to 2021 without incident. Some fared worse than others. Maintaining composure was hard; sometimes, crumbling made sense.

YouTube’s docuseries Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil has been a clinic in the drastic measures we often take to keep up appearances. As a kind of secret history of the singer, actress, and sometime reality-TV regular who pivoted from Disney Channel roles to legit multi-platform renown at the end of the aughts, Dancing With the Devil cuts through the surface narrative we’ve been given to mitigate Lovato’s highs and lows throughout the last decade. You come away really feeling for Lovato, who weathered family trauma and mental-health struggles as a child before being whisked up into the pageant circuit and ultimately into the exacting teen-celebrity machine of the 2000s, which made household names of Lovato, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers, Lindsay Lohan, and others, sometimes at a cost. Dancing is Lovato’s third behind-the-scenes doc, but in the first five minutes, you learn that the others didn’t quite get the entire story — a ride we’ve been through with her before, since in 2017’s Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, we found out that she’d done her interview for 2012’s Demi Lovato: Stay Strong while high on cocaine. In Dancing, people in the singer’s close circle seem surprised by her willingness to discuss the more unflattering points in her history; the purpose of the album-release doc is to show us that you’re having fun and in a great place.

The series and the new album Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over present a hard reset for Lovato so profound that it feels like we’ve met a new person. Three years ago, she nearly died of a heroin overdose just a month after releasing “Sober,” a harrowing first-person account of feeling shame after admitting to a relapse. She’s on a different path now, embracing a jarring and totalizing honesty. She broke up with her fiancé. She came out as pansexual. She detailed the heartbreaking depths of her drug use and opened up about being sexually assaulted by a drug dealer and an unnamed Disney co-star who wasn’t punished or even kept away from her when she came forward. The Art of Starting Over is charged with the unenviable task of speaking to Lovato’s brutal personal trials while remaining true to the uplifting sounds and words of her back catalog. It’s a messy business that’s handled with unusual grace and poise. This is easily the best Demi album, and maybe the best of the young year’s pop crop thus far. Abandoning the old, safe, controlled narrative has worked wonders, but it’s the exploration that makes Starting Over great.

Starting Over is a concept album that dramatizes Lovato’s journey from a near-death encounter to her present self-acceptance, starting out deep in the mire with songs like “Anyone” and “Dancing With the Devil” and painstakingly making its way to a literal “Good Place.” Along the way, she touches on the many unique points in her experience but also cycles effortlessly through a grab bag of genres that allow her to showcase the versatility of her instrument, which is mercifully unblemished after the close call that left her with some lasting neurological difficulties. At 19 songs clocking in just under an hour, Starting Over is the rare long(ish) album that justifies the many ideas it brings to the table, a succession of three-minute jams that cut deep and get scarce. It’s frontloaded with the most difficult moments, leading with a step-by-step trip through the pain, dependency, and lasping resolve that brought about a brush with fate before getting to the aftermath. “Anyone,” recorded days before the overdose, is a jarring opener, a pleading, screaming cry for help from someone who can almost feel tragedy on the horizon. “Dancing With the Devil,” a kind of burlesque blues that revels in the darkness similar songs (like Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”) are happy to only gesture at, juggles a double life and drops the ball: “I told you I was okay, but I was lying.” In “I.C.U.,” Lovato apologizes to her younger sister for the scares the family has had with her over the years.

When Starting Over gets the tough stuff off its chest, it excitedly maps out the precarious businesses of restoration and recovery. Suddenly, there’s a skip in its step and a lilt in the vocals. This is where Lovato comes out swinging as a powerhouse performer and a steady fixture on the pop charts, the voice and the radiant inner strength of “Sorry Not Sorry” and “Tell Me You Love Me.” There isn’t a KO quite as instant as “Sorry” here, but there’s quality and consistency that many of Lovato’s earlier releases have struggled to maintain, even as Starting Over seats the singer’s voice in unexpected new settings. “Lonely People” and “Melon Cake” dabble in the anthemic ’80s pop-rock Gwen Stefani used to exemplify as Lovato pledges not to suffer in silence again, since everyone’s got their own issues to work through now. On “The Way You Don’t Look at Me” and “What Other People Say,” Lovato shows that she can do pop-country and folk-pop as effortlessly as anyone whose specialty is acoustic guitars and earnest oversharing. “The Art of Starting Over” and “The Kind of Lover I Am” are both breezy, upbeat yacht-rock jams, the latter of which deserves attention as a prideful bi-visibility anthem. “15 Minutes” and “California Sober” recall empowering aughts hits like Dido’s “Thank You” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” then “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” and the Ariana Grande duet “Met Him Last Night” show a flair for contemporary R&B that hasn’t lost luster since the Timbaland and Missy collaborations of 2011’s Unbroken. The only sorta-miss is a cover of the Tears for Fears hit “Mad World” that hews too close to the Donnie Darko version to feel unique to Demi.

Steadying the album through its many twists is a voice that seems to delight in bucking the changes. On the psych-tinged “Carefully,” it’s light and limber. “The Art of Starting Over” rides taut, percussive notes to a soaring hook. “Melon Cake” balances breathy and wryly funny verses with a big crooning chorus, like a Katy Perry song. “Dancing With the Devil” affects salaciousness through booming blue notes. You can hear pure pain in the unrestrained caterwaul of “Anyone” and unfettered spite in the growling, snarling, laughing delivery on “15 Minutes.” Lovato sells the message of the song with the tone of her voice as much as the words she sings. The audible snark in “15 Minutes” is for an ex who’s been kicked to the curb. The cluttered phrasing of “Melon Cake” mimics having your life micromanaged by dieticians, sober companions, and staff more beholden to an overarching managerial imperative than the happiness of the artist, for whom the demand to look a certain way triggers issues with eating.

Starting Over is a delicate balancing act on many fronts. Lovato’s showing she can hang with the changes happening in mainstream pop right now, which is skewing more toward organic sounds nowadays, if the instant success of Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” and the new Olivia Rodrigo jams are to be trusted, to say nothing of our pop supreme Taylor Swift’s year of rustic folk albums. (It’s interesting having new bellwethers emerge as tastes shift. It’s time to start giving props to the Haim sisters for teaching the girls new tricks in this decade, is it not?)

Demi’s also getting her story out while avoiding being a bummer, which “Lonely People” achieves in style, and promising that although the path of recovery isn’t easy, and she’s lost her way before, she’s still up for the challenge, as late album gems “California Sober” and “Good Place” express. She’s done this kind of song before — see Unbroken’s “Skyscraper,” Confident’s “Old Ways,” or Tell Me You Love Me’s “You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore” — but always kept a careful distance. You could easily mistake songs about addiction and rehabilitation for narratives about relationships gone awry (and to be fair, the two are one and the same sometimes), breakup songs where the thing being broken up with happens to be a habit rather than a human. The autobiographical specificity of Starting Over is a bold direction and a necessary catharsis for a performer whose success at playing the part of the phoenix rising was shaken when we almost lost her.

Demi Lovato is changing, and it looks to be for the better. But it’s time for us to change as well. The more we hear about young stars being pushed to the brink of self-destruction trying to live up to unattainable standards of wholesomeness, thinness, goodness, and chasteness they’re held to as role models and examples to their peers, the more we should weigh the costs of our demands. Seeing Justin Bieber talk about contemplating self-harm and hearing Demi sing about pressure to be thin and learning how many horrors their peers weathered in private performing perfection in the name of entertaining us … the payoff’s not worth the pain. What if we were less demanding, more accepting and understanding, and they didn’t have to hide who they really are behind the gleam of a charming, reassuring showbiz facçde?

Demi Lovato’s Redemption Arc Begins