Four years since her last album, Demi Lovato made a triumphant return to the music scene with “Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over.” The album comes in the wake of her 2018 heroin overdose and is accompanied by a documentary series unpacking the events that led up to her hospitalization. The album’s greatest strengths lie in Lovato’s undeniably exceptional vocal ability and in her hooks. However, awkward phrasing and overly specific lyrics in the verses and pre-choruses on some songs detract from their listenability, resulting in an inconsistent record.
The album is split into two pieces that cover the last two and a half years of Lovato’s life. The “Dancing With The Devil” section of the album comprises three songs, and chronicles her overdose. The album opens with “Anyone,” the song she sang at the 62nd Grammy’s in her first time returning to the stage post-overdose. Accompanied by just a piano, Lovato’s voice soars, a driving force all on its own, and her pain bursts forth with her high sustained belt, crying out for “anyone” to listen to her. The following track, “Dancing With The Devil,” recounts her relapse and “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)” places her in a hospital bed speaking to her younger sister, Madison De La Garza. The latter’s lyrics focus on references to sight, even in the title (“ICU” takes on two meanings, both Intensive Care Unit and “I See You”). In her documentary series, Lovato explains that she was unable to see when she first woke up in the hospital and therefore couldn’t recognize her sister. “Anyone” is the strongest of these three songs, and, along with “ICU,” it is the most emotionally vulnerable. “ICU” ends with De La Garza saying “I love you Demi” and Lovato replying “I love you too,” and while it is a sweet moment for the sisters, it detracts from the song’s listenability.
Lovato begins the second half of her album, which narrates her recovery, with “Intro,” a spoken interlude. While the purpose of this interlude is clear — to introduce her new self — it falls flat as the result of overly dramatic pauses and canned lines, coming across as a bad slam poem. It contrasts starkly with Lovato’s use of speech in “The Kind Of Lover I Am,” which feels candid, lighthearted, and fun.
The first track of the second half of the album, “The Art Of Starting Over,” elicits feelings of cruising during the summer in a vintage convertible with all the windows down, effectively creating a sonic separation between the two halves of the album. However, the first verse has a weak opening, with overuse of a time motif that doesn’t hold relevance to the rest of the song: “I'm like a watch, I'm unwinding like a clock / It's okay if I don't know what the time is.”
Vocally, Lovato is strong across the board in both her lower and upper registers, as well as in breathy and belt moments. As a songwriter, however, she is inconsistent. Some tracks, like “Dancing With The Devil” and “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend (feat. Saweetie),” have excellent hooks but awkward verses while others, like “Butterfly” and “15 Minutes,” have good verses and pre-choruses but lazy hooks.
The opening line of “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend”: “I found the love of my life / Wait I mean the loves of my life” exemplifies the lyrical issues Lovato runs into throughout the album. At times, Lovato tries to over-explain her experiences, which results in awkward and unnecessary exposition if the listener has watched the accompanying documentary. Lovato’s lyrical details sometimes become so specific that they bring the listener out of the song as the lyrics become far less applicable universally.
Another inconsistency in the album lies in its features. Two of the strongest songs on the album feature Ariana Grande (“Met Him Last Night”) and Noah Cyrus (“Easy”). Grande, like Lovato, is known for her vocal prowess. To hear these two vocal powerhouses with different strengths team up and compliment each other was a highlight of the album, with Grande’s breathier, warmer tone playing against Lovato’s bright high belt. “Easy” has a beautiful chorus with repeating note patterns that create a rise and fall effect. Cyrus brings out the softer side of Lovato’s voice on this record, and she serves as a balance on the chorus because her mix is headier than Lovato’s. Meanwhile, “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” sounds like a song that should feature Doja Cat rather than Saweetie, whose verse is not particularly memorable, except for the somewhat humorous line “And they got my back like a chiropract(or)”
Although Lovato has been known throughout her career for uptempo bangers such as “La La Land,” “Confident,” and “Sorry Not Sorry,” her ballads and midtempo tracks are what shine on this album. Songs like “Anyone,” “The Way You Don’t Look At Me,” and “Easy (with Noah Cyrus)” walk the line between deeply personal and universally relatable.
Due to its inconsistencies, “Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over” is not an album that can just be listened to straight through. ”The Art of Starting Over” gets weaker as it continues, and none of the songs after “Easy“ are as strong as the first half of the segment. However, if the listener wants to feel nostalgic, “Good Place” does feel reminiscent of “Lightweight” with its melody and key.
Perhaps the most important lesson this album teaches us is the importance of the art to an artist, and how music can be healing not just for the listener, but for the musician themself. With its hyperspecific lyrics and its personal storytelling, in “Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over,” Lovato isn’t making music for us — she’s making it for herself.