By now, most people approaching this album will be familiar with the sheer, bloodied trauma of Demi Lovato’s recent history. The overdose, the hospital treatment, the abuse, the mental health difficulties, and the continual, continual struggle to forge a positive, lasting identity. Reviewing her new album – so broad, so challenging, and so deeply personal in its scope – is almost a fools’ errand. How best to sum up 19 tracks (in its ordinary tracklisting) and a full hour of music? Music that spans her most explicit, heartbreaking lyricism and – somewhat unexpectedly – a cover of Tears For Fears via Gary Lucas spine-tingler ‘Mad World’?
Well, we can start at the beginning. Opener ‘Anyone’ is a bravura performance, one of the most technically daring vocals Demi has recorded at any point in her career. It’s the way she can move from high to low, however, that marks it out – she can move from surging, skyscraper notes down to the final pleading, and somehow let it all hang together. ‘Dancing With The Devil’ warns “almost made it to Heaven / I was closer than you know” amid its bruising arena pop, a sign that she is looking for a way to blend her ambitions with her experiences.
It’s a mixture that, at times, works seamlessly. The opening three tracks are almost an EP in their own right, before a quick reset. Semi title track ‘The Art Of Starting Over’ begins anew, a straight forward bop that gets to the root of Demi’s recovery – her natural talent, her ear for pop magic, affording room for personal renewal.
The darkness never fully recedes, though. ‘Lonely People’ and ‘The Way You Don’t Look At Me’ find her insecurities laid bare, with Demi refusing to shy away from painful experiences in her life. Ariana Grande’s appearance on ‘Met Him Last Night’ contrasts two of pop’s most formidable vocalists in a widescreen setting, while Sam Fischer co-writes mid-album high point ‘What Other People Say’.
As enriching as these collaborative moments are, the album thrives on the central dynamic of its formidable auteur. ‘My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend’ is the sound of someone emerging from trauma to re-shape their priorities, and this theme of control filters down to the most minute details on the album; the acoustic guitar ring on ‘The Kind Of Lover I Am’ for instance, or the way ‘California Sober’ matches sighing backing vocals to an artist “trading my shame for perspective…”
Set to accompany a full documentary into her life, ‘Dancing With The Devil… The Art Of Starting Over’ is Demi Lovato in widescreen. Ideas are spewed out, the mistakes left in place – learning to trust yourself means you have to love your mistakes, after all. Is it too long? Does ‘Mad World’ fit the over-arching structure of the record? Fans can debate these things, but those responses are limited ways of observing Demi’s art. Ultimately, it’s her truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
Words: Robin Murray
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