Ava Max does not feel like she is of this era of music. And that’s not exactly a compliment. With a new class of pop stars ranging from Billie Eilish to Ariana Grande, Lil Nas X to BTS, and a slew of bombastic female rappers (Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, etc.), the face of pop music is finally embodying the vastness and multifariousness of the term. When you see the phrase “[insert artist] saved/is saving pop music” used online, you will likely see a picture of Ava Max attached to the message. Thanks, in no small part, to her whiteness, blonde hair, and easily digestible bubblegum/dance-pop sound, Ava Max has been thrust into a legacy that she didn’t asked to be put into. Her debut single, a sublime slice of bubblegum pop goodness titled “Sweet but Psycho,” landed in the Top 10 on official charts in the U.S., Australia, U.K., and more. Released in 2018, the single catapulted Ava out of obscurity and plopped her into the lap of pop music fans around the world. The hook-laden track was, and still is, reminiscent of the great dance-pop anthems of the early 2010s. “Sweet but Psycho” felt like a tribute to that era, but the subtle trap undertones kept it fresh. Unfortunately, on her debut album, Heaven & Hell, Ava Max has delivered a collection of bland and forgettable songs that fail at trying to recreate a musical era that we haven’t had time to miss yet — all under the guise of a concept album.
Heaven & Hell aims to be a concept album that details Ava’s interpretations of heaven and hell in the context of a relationship. Side A (Heaven) is comprised of the first seven tracks, the eighth, “Torn,” represents purgatory, and the rest of the album comprises Side B (Hell). Concept albums are a challenge and deciding to make your debut album one is nothing short of ambitious. Heaven & Hell‘s primary issue is that the album’s sonic monotony clouds Ava’s conceptual efforts. Generally, the record is stranded in this vacuous dance-pop wasteland that rarely, if ever, brings something new to the table. Ava isn’t obligated to reinvent the wheel of dance-pop, but, at the very least, it could be well executed. The mixing cheapens the sound quality of the album’s production, particularly the drums and the synths, and the Auto-Tune is unwavering in how irksome it insists upon being. In a year that gifted us lush pop albums like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA, Heaven & Hell feels like a poorly done paint-by-the numbers exercise.
The album starts off with a “H.E.A.V.E.N.,” an atmospheric intro that introduces the hazy dance-pop universe of Heaven & Hell. This short track actually offers some of the more interesting and immersive production on the album, but it simply isn’t arresting enough for the first track on Ava’s debut album. From there, Ava launches into a painfully predictable and ultimately boring slew of tracks. On Heaven & Hell, every major lyrical trope in pop music from the past decade can be found. There’s the token empowerment track in “Kings & Queens” that never pushes its exploration of feminism beyond the metaphor of royalty. On a more positive note, that song’s interpolation of Bonnie Tyler’s 1986 track, “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man),” was a genius choice and one of the best moments on the album. “Naked” is a song that has been made a million times before; an empty plea for emotional vulnerability hidden behind the veil of an initially sexually suggestive title. “OMG What’s Happening” attempts to recall something other than 10s pop with its undercurrent of funk influences. For some reason, however, Ava feels the need to include a spoken word interlude that is so cringeworthy it’s laughable. Side B of the album, to its credit, does include moodier melodies, but the overall tone of all of the songs is essentially indistinguishable from Side A. The album reaches its darkest and moodiest point with “Belladonna,” a track with a lot of promise that is thrown to the side with a chorus that goes “Belladonna, belladonna, belladonna, belladonna/Poisonous, contagious, get you high in my cabana.” Previous released singles “Sweet but Psycho,” “So Am I,” and “Salt” all appear on Side B as well.
Heaven & Hell is built for passive listening. This is the type of album whose songs you’ll hear playing as you wander around an Old Navy or while waiting for the hits that you actually want to hear on the radio. A concept album cannot halfheartedly adhere to its concept. The actual music of Heaven & Hell is not interesting enough to warrant attentive listening, so unless a listener is specifically trying to hear the lyrical and melodic difference between Side A and Side B, everything sounds the same. In the same way that the concept was present on the album artwork and in the lyrics, the sonic approach to both sides should have been markedly different. If this album proves anything, it’s that Ava Max can write the hell out of a pop song. She may appeal to the lowest common denominator of the cheesiest pop music, but those hooks are undeniable. Every track is catchy enough that you’ll likely find yourself involuntarily bopping your head, but the album evokes no feeling beyond that. Between the cliché lyrics and passable vocal performances there is a certain vapidity that hovers over the album. Ava Max undoubtedly has talent; she may just want to recruit different collaborators to showcase that talent. Heaven & Hell is so inoffensive that it’s offensive. The album is a collection of tracks that gets boring quick and blends together even quicker. If that’s what Ava was going for, then more power to her; if not, she may want to give it another go.
Key Tracks: “Sweet but Psycho” | “Kings & Queens” | “Torn”