Lovato has clearly evolved as a person and seeks to lyrically contend with her traumas, but her music hasn’t done much growing.
It’s often said that when someone experiences a traumatic event, their life splits into a “before” and an “after.” Demi Lovato’s new album, Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over, signals an ambition in line with this through the bifurcation of its title: The album chronicles two periods of Lovato’s life, with a clear division between them. In 2018, after struggling with addiction for many years, the former Disney Channel star-turned-super successful pop icon overdosed and nearly died. This event, of course, marks a turning point — and “after” the experience, they intend to leave everything raw and open, to be viewed by and picked at by their fans and detractors alike.
Opener “Anyone” is a cry for help (“Nobody’s listening to me / Nobody’s listening / I talk to shooting stars / But they always get it wrong”) that, unfortunately, is built around a grating, aggressively radio-pop melody that only intensifies the broadness of the message — a nondescript sadness that could be about anything, rather than a more specific plea for solace and community. The same generic approach to exploring this theme is felt on “Dancing With the Devil,” a song that’s obviously about their addiction and overdose (“Almost made it to heaven / It was closer than you know”) but whose lyrics never dig deeper, and largely just rely on some strong production to project a sense of seriousness. Not until “ICU” — about Lovato’s experiences immediately after their overdose (she woke up in the hospital and found that she had temporarily lost her sight) — does Lovato seem to find her footing, and a coherent theme. But this is also when Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over shifts gears, and into the second half of that title.
There are certainly many harrowing subjects addressed on this second side of the album — struggling with eating disorders (“The Way You Don’t Look at Me”), a lack of commitment to monogamous ideals (“The Kind of Lover I Am”), the dissolution of an engagement (“15 Minutes”) — but the music itself just doesn’t support the weight. In fact, a lot of the instrumentals for these tracks don’t sound far off from the kind of thing one might hear soundtracking a Disney Channel series — an impression that becomes instructive, in terms of understanding the problem with this album. It can’t be denied that Lovato has gone through trauma in their life, or even that their lyrics are at least trying to address it — but their music hasn’t done any growing yet.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2021 | Part 2.