Demi Lovato’s Dancing With the Devil … The Art of Starting Over is an album that is hard to view objectively. It arrives in the wake of a documentary series, also called Dancing With the Devil, and a subsequent broadsheet interview, both of which detailed the former Disney star’s descent into drug addiction in agonising detail. If you thought the recent Britney Spears documentary was a damning indictment of the way the music industry and media treats young female stars – and the consequences of doing so – then Lovato’s story significantly ups the ante.
It begins with an account of the singer being raped, aged 15, by one of her Disney Channel co-stars. She says her rapist faced no consequences, and she subsequently “had to see this person all the time”. There follows a saga of anorexia, bulimia, violence, hard drugs, self-harm and ultra-controlling, coercive management that reaches a grim nadir in 2018 with Lovato taking heroin laced with fentanyl – the synthetic opioid that killed Prince – and being raped again, this time by her drug dealer, then overdosing: she suffered three strokes and a heart attack, leaving her with brain damage. Frankly, it seems miraculous that Lovato is alive, let alone releasing a new album.
It’s a story that feels like every ghastly tale you’ve heard about the music business wrapped into one appalling package, and it would take a superhuman effort for the listener to stop it hanging over Lovato’s first album in four years. But then, Dancing With the Devil … The Art of Starting Over doesn’t want the listener to do that. It shares not just its title with the documentary series, but much of its contents and its unflinching tone. An artist initially groomed to be as blandly inoffensive as possible, Lovato has recently developed an impressive line in sharp, incisive lyrics, two facts that are doubtless connected. Her 2020 single Commander in Chief wasn’t pop’s first response to the Trump presidency, but it was definitely the most lacerating: “If I did the things you do, I couldn’t sleep … people are dying while you line your pockets.”
On Dancing With the Devil, she turns the same unsparing focus on her recent past. It opens with Anyone, which depicts her having a breakdown on stage: “I feel stupid when I sing / No one’s listening to me.” By track two, she’s smoking crack. The Way You Don’t Look at Me and Melon Cake offer withering accounts of her time working with managers who controlled what she ate and when she exercised, who “tried to make me Barbie-sized and I obliged” and who once, the latter song claims, fired an assistant for buying her a bar of chocolate: “I’ve lost 10 pounds in two weeks because you told me I shouldn’t eat.”
ICU (Madison’s Lullabye) initially sounds like an apology to fans who bought into the squeaky-clean star of Camp Rock – “I didn’t want those innocent eyes to watch me fall from grace” – but turns out to be far darker: a drawing of Lovato coming round after her overdose to discover she had gone temporarily blind and her younger sister was by her bedside. You struggle to think of another pop album – particularly one made by an artist with Lovato’s background – that’s so painfully frank. On any other album, the tracks where an ex-fiance gets a verbal duffing-up or the artist revels in the announcement of their pansexuality – “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick” – would be the head-turning moments: here, they’re something of a respite.
You just wish the music was as head-turning as the words. But the melodies are competently done rather than undeniable, the sound a grab-bag of vogueish styles. It’s at its best when it leans towards a warm pastiche of 70s yacht rock, heavy on the electric piano, as on The Art of Starting Over and The Kind of Lover I Am. Elsewhere it ranges from the Billie Eilish-esque close-mic’d vocals and staccato electronics of My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend to the chugging widescreen 80s pop of Melon Cake. There are a lot of piano ballads that swell to stadium-sized climaxes in the vein of Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful: they show off Lovato’s voice, with its bravura vibrato, but none of them have Beautiful’s nailed-on chorus.
It feels pointless to complain that it’s also too long at 19 tracks – making albums that are too long seems to have become as fundamental a part of 21st-century pop as calling on the services of umpteen songwriters-for-hire, and at least Lovato has plenty to say. But you could easily have lost two straightforward love songs into which the singer had no writing input and the cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World, which are pleasant enough, but seem out of place amid the soul-bearing and trauma. It’s an album that is simultaneously shocking, laudable and a little underwhelming. That said, it comes with a happy ending, which for the moment is probably more than enough for the woman who made it.
Alison Thorsteinsen: Cowboy
Beautiful, hypnotic, languid country-folk from Australia, Cowboy sounds like a song emerging through a heat-haze.