Demi Lovato Turns a Recovery Narrative Into Musical Theater in ‘Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over’: Album Review

Demi Lovato Dancing With the Devil
Courtesy of Island Records

Boldness is very much the brand in Demi Lovato’s new album, “Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over,” an assertion that will strike no one as surprising after the pop star’s media blitzkrieg of the last few weeks. The fact that it isn’t a surprise is either an advantage or a problem, depending on your vantage point.

Is the album release the culmination of a cycle in which she’s told her unnerving story in a docuseries and attendant interviews for it, or does it risk coming off as an afterthought in that campaign? She’s been so dominant a pop news figure that it’s hard to believe only two and a half weeks have transpired since the serialized YouTube film “Dancing With the Devil” premiered at South By Southwest. Hearing those same harrowing, now-legendary events of her addiction and recovery play out in song feels a little bit like: You’ve seen the hit movie; now here’s the Broadway musical adaptation.

“The Art of Starting Over” (let’s henceforth refer to the album by the second half of its bifurcated title, to avoid confusion with the film) fits squarely into a tradition of confessional pop that stretches at least from John Lennon’s about-to-be-reissued “Plastic Ono Band” to most of the Taylor Swift oeuvre. Probably any other record in that storied tradition delivered its candor and shocks right on release day, though, not following a feature-film-length teaser, which makes this sprawling 18-song collection (22 in the bonus-augmented digital edition!) tougher to evaluate on its own. And it’s not just the documentary: Judgment may be further clouded by Thursday night’s release of a music video for the half-title-song, “Dancing With the Devil,” which is bound to elicit strong pro-and-con opinions by putting Lovato in near-death makeup, recreating the worst moments of her life in song as she sings from a hospital gurney, tubes up her nose in place of an earpiece.

If “Starting Over” did come to us in isolation, with no attendant projects or hype to manipulate expectations, here, to the best of our ability to theorize that situation, is what we’d probably end up saying about it: It is, in fact, bold and brazen, and sometimes harrowing (to use all the adjectives already applied to the movie), and Lovato has chutzpah from Malibu to the Atlantic and back for laying herself out in terms this raw. It’s almost landmark-worthy, really, in that confessional pop-rock lineage we were just discussing, for how few filters she cares to put on a private life made public. And… we wish the songs were a little better.

We should probably add that assessments are complicated by “The Art of Starting Over” not knowing exactly what kind of album it wants to be. It’s a diary opened up and turned into sheet music with blood all over the pages, yes… except for the moments when it just wants to turn into a pop album. That hedging of bets is basically a good thing: You don’t want an album of 22 songs just focused on one person’s suffering. But it is a little hard to follow where “Starting Over” is going when, just three tracks in, a Lovato spoken-word interlude comes in and literally says that the album is starting over, and there are several more big gear-shifts to come (although none of them announce themselves quite that grandly).

It seems as if Lovato conceived of those first three pre-interlude tracks as their own EP-within-an-LP… the bracing soundtrack to the hyper-reality of “Dancing With the Devil,” the documentary, getting the shock-and-awe out of the way right upfront before thereafter giving the listener and herself a license to relax a little. Of these three, and really of the whole album, the opening “Anyone” is the best track. Presented exactly as she belted it on the Grammys in January 2020, accompanied only by a piano, it feels underwritten, but underwritten in the best, rawest way, laying personal desolation on the line with a rawness even Lennon might be proud of… though her version of primal scream therapy vocalizing is always going to lean toward Broadway with an edgy rasp in its throat. “I feel stupid when I sing” is still one of the most bracing things a performer has ever sung, at least this popular a performer, in front of that many millions of people, at that booming a natural decibel level.

That’s a high enough high — or high enough low, if you will — that it’s not a terrible thing to say the rest of the album can never top that. But it takes a dip pretty quickly with “Dancing With the Devil,” although this recounting of a relapse starts off with a hell of a promising first verse: “It’s just a little red wine, I’ll be fine / Not like I wanna do this every night / I’ve been good, don’t I deserve it? / I think I earned it…” That addicts’ justification gives way to the cliched hell imagery and blandly dramatic production, as an unmemorable pro forma chorus leaves the tune’s potential to turn into something really riveting purgatory-bound. That’s followed by another solo-piano ballad, “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye),” this one a sweet counterpoint to “Anyone,” with Lovato sharing her sorrow about letting her little sister down by ending up in the, yes, ICU — something that should probably never be turned into an “I see you” pun, even with the noblest of intentions.

After that awkward now-the-album-is-really-starting interlude, it will come as a relief that Lovato gets a light-R&B groove going for the first time with the other title song, “The Art of Starting Over,” though its pleasant insubstantiality is a bit of a jolt after the Götterdämmerung of those first three tracks. “Lonely People” has a nearly chanted chorus over a rhythm guitar riff helping make the track feel like a decent enough Avril Lavigne/Selena Gomez hybrid. One of the album’s standouts, the acoustic “The Way You Don’t Look at Me” — one of the few times you’ll heard steel guitar on a Demi Lovato track — does a trenchant job of telling how a lover’s quiet apathy can be worst than going to “hell and back”; not for the last time on the album, Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter make a good writing team for her when it comes to taking on “issues.”

“Melon Cake” tries to split the difference between the two sides of the album: It’s in that super-confessional mode, like those early tracks — Lovato has talked about how, in part of her enforced diets as a child star, her handlers put candles in watermelons in place of real birthday cakes — but with a frothy pop feel in place of the musical melodrama. A promising song in theory, but hearing Lovato sing “No more melon cake” over and over again belies the album’s willingness to settle too often for elementary, sing-songy chorus lines.

Her collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Met Him Last Night,” isn’t the battle of the divas you’d hope for; it’s one “devil” song too many on an album that doesn’t lack for brimstone imagery, and there’s a reason the Grande-cowritten track didn’t make any of her own recent albums — it’s bonus-track-level at best. That’s one of the handful of tracks Lovato didn’t have a hand in writing; another, and a far superior one, is “Carefully.” Sans the autobiographical details the singer is trying to build into every other nook and cranny of the collection, “Carefully” stands out, in being more impersonal… but it’s also such a beautifully melodic, well-crafted piece of work it makes you wish she’d get right back in the studio for a non-concept album’s worth of outside contributions this good.

“The Kind of Lover I Am” hits another one of Lovato’s current talking points — the pansexual one. It feels like the one truly provocative couplet, “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick / I don’t care if you’ve got a WAP,” was shoehorned into an existing song. But producer Oak knows exactly how to sell the easy, breezy hook that is the album’s best, with soft, layered background vocals and live-sounding band that lift the album out of all that hellfire and set it down somewhere on a sexed-up tropical island.

“Easy,” a duet with Noah Cyrus, breaks that sunny mood with a return to melodrama — laden with unnecessary strings that sound straight outta ProTools, even though the credits say they’re real. Bummer mode continues but at least picks up the pace with “15 Minutes,” a kiss-off to a lover who supposedly latched onto her for the fleeting Warholesque fame. Aside from the opening number, the album might lyrically peak when Lovato, not one for immense measures of personal modesty, declares: “I’m not innocent  / I’m know I’m a headache but I’m working on it  / It should be an honor / I even had the time to bother.”  The honor of beholding that kind of lyrical audacity is all ours.

Biggest letdown honors go to the Saweetie collaboration “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend,” if only because one of the album’s better lyrical concepts, and even a pretty good line-by-line execution, are wasted on the set’s most aggressively annoying track. Whatever the title might seem to promise, it’s not another nod to pansexuality — it’s a friendship-over- romance anthem, or, as Saweetie inevitably puts it, “chicks over dicks,” but the sharp lines in the verses are undercut by a nursery-rhyme chorus even a toddler might tire of, let alone the grown women needing a fresh girls-night-out anthem.

“California Sober” lends the album a nice, Cali-folky-pop Santa Ana wind of a musical interlude… only alluding and making no literal lyrical reference to the weed and alcohol that fit Lovato’s controversial definition of hard-stuff-avoidant “sobriety.” (Elton John will not be including this song in his personal playlist, anyway.) “Mad World,” her version of the oft-covered Tears for Fears tune, clearly belongs on the album because… they’d set a 21-track goal for the album and got stuck at 20? It’s not bad, but it’s a mystery. The non-deluxe portion of the album ends in a satisfying spot with “Good Place,” a reasonably-happy-ever-after wrap-up that again proves Tranter and Michaels are good partners. Put the alluring feel and sophisticated, acoustically rendered melody on replay, and you might even convince yourself the album isn’t as scattershot as it is.

“Good Place” actually does a great job of showcasing Lovato’s superior voice in non-belter mode, making it a fine bookend to the balls-out opening that was “Anyone,” just over an hour prior. What comes before “Good Place” all too often feels all-over-the-place — a planned tour de force that probably should have settled in on whether it really wanted to be a soundtrack to the “Devil’s” work or just revert completely to Fun Demi as a tonic for all the trauma on display in the documentary. Amid the overtly autobiographical numbers, there are pretty good and not-so-hot numbers; the same unevenness goes of the more escapist turns the album makes. This might not be such a problem if “Art of Starting Over” had one undeniable smash on it to help steamroll over the unevenness. But there’s no doubt that she’s alive, well, singing more than just well, and stepping around smallish problems like how to make an album that feels coherent instead of dancing with Mr. D.