Demi Lovato is meant to be here and her latest studio album, Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over, is proof that she has so much to share with the world. Informed by her near-fatal 2018 overdose and her recovery journey thereafter, Dancing With The Devil is an emotional odyssey that hits every peak and valley of Demi’s life with heart-breaking vulnerability. Divided into two parts that correspond to the title’s two phrases, Demi’s seventh studio album meanders its way through real-life narratives by drawing inspiration from synthpop, rock, gospel, country, soul, and hip-hop. What the album may lack in sonic cohesiveness, it more than makes up for with consistent songwriting and some of Demi’s best and most nuanced vocal performances ever. At its core, Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over is a tapestry of narratives about recovery and rebirth. Obviously, Demi’s recovery journey in regard to drugs influence a large part of the album, but she is also exploring the concept of recovery in relation to taking accountability for her actions, reconciling with her loved ones and her own soul, and being at peace with where she is right now. With a runtime of just under an hour, this album is not a breezy listen, nor should it be one. With Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over, Demi Lovato has delivered the most revelatory and adventurous album of her career.
Beginning with her somber comeback single, “Anyone,” the Dancing With The Devil portion of the album immediately delves into the throes of despair and desperation. The sparse ballad finds Demi’s wails underscored by a pounding piano as she belts out how helpless she feels because “nobody’s listening” to her. Recorded just four days before her 2018 overdose, “Anyone” carries darkness with it because of how it is literally a cry for help from every angle. Thematically, “Anyone” sets the tone for how candid Dancing With The Devil will be regarding Demi’s personal struggles, but it also solidifies the timeline for the album, specifically the first part. One of the album’s titular tracks, “Dancing With The Devil,” succeeds “Anyone.” In short, it’s one of the best songs that Demi has ever released. From the slight voice crack on the word “feels” in the lyric “feels like I’ve earned it” to the heavy-handed lyricism that explicitly describes the series of events that led to her overdose, “Dancing with The Devil” packs a hell of a punch into one song. Produced by Mitch Allan, “Dancing” employs a grandiose mélange of bass, piano, guitar, and percussion to assist Demi as she delivers one of her most impactful vocal performances yet. This is up there with “Father,” “Sober,” and “Anyone,” with how effective Demi’s performance here is. She sounds well-rested, her riffs are cleaner, and she’s pulling from a well of emotion that’s new and explicitly informed by her life experiences. Often, artists have to “sell” a record to make the song believable, but with Demi and “Dancing,” she’s somewhere far beyond that point. This is a song that only Demi can sing. From there, “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)” brings the Dancing With The Devil portion of the album to a close. When Madison, Demi’s younger sister, came to visit her in the hospital and Demi literally could not see her because she was legally blind after her overdose, Demi wrote this heart-wrenching track. Over a twinkling piano melody that plays into the lullabye theme, Demi belts about how much she loves her sister and promises that she can see her clearly now. Packed with references to “Amazing Grace” and lyrics like “always my baby girl, already know you gon’ change the world,” “ICU” could have easily become corny, but Demi’s tender vocal performance and the personalization of the song help it avoid that mark. Most importantly, “ICU” foreshadows the album’s later explorations of how Demi’s struggles impact the relationship between her and her loved ones.
It’s not very often that an album’s “Intro” is listed as the fourth track, but in Demi’s case, this marks the beginning of The Art of Starting Over. The vast majority of the album, the songs that make up The Art of Starting Over branch out into a million different directions, and yet, somehow, they all fit together for the most part. The first full-length song on this part of the album, also the album’s second titular track, finds Demi returning to the pop-rock feel of her Disney days. Plucky guitars steady the bouncy pace of the song as Demi relays “The Art of Starting Over” as it relates to recovery from her addiction (“Give me a pen, I’m rewriting another ending”) and moving on from a less than favorable romance (“That the woman in me does not cry/For a man who is a boy and he does not deserve this”). Although the hook takes some time to settle into its groove, the song works because of the guitar. The guitar is the most important instrument on Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over because it is able to add some sense of levity to the heavy songwriting. Demi isn’t exactly a nuanced songwriter; she favors direct couplets over flowery metaphors. With essentially all of the songs on the album written this way, too much piano would be far too overwhelming. The guitars also help her shift from country-pop to power pop and pop-rock to help with the variety of the album’s sound. Furthermore, Demi sounds her best when she’s singing with guitars. There’s something about the instrument that highlights the grit in her voice that gets lost in glossy pop productions like on the DEMI and Confident albums. That pop-rock feel manifests itself throughout the album. In “Lonely People,” Demi emphasizes the importance of loving yourself over dedicating your life to searching for a significant other with lyrics like “All that love is, is a means to an end/Romeo and Juliet are dead.” It’s a sweet sentiment that unfortunately gets lost in the repetitive chorus. “What Other People Say,” a collaboration with Sam Fischer that preceded the album, finds itself squarely in the pop-rock arena, but the derivative lyrics turn the song into something that would sound like HAC radio playlist filler in the early 2010s.
The Art of Starting Over is at its best when Demi is crooning over less robust arrangements that are still anchored by guitar. “The Way You Don’t Look At Me” is an instant standout. The track uses an Ed Sheeran-esque coffee shop pop sound as the foundation for a story about the devastating feeling that arises when the person you love begins to lose interest in and stops paying attention to you. Demi compares this feeling of lost love to the terrors of her eating disorder (“I’ve lost ten pounds in two weeks/’Cause I told me I shouldn’t eat”) and overdose (“I gained a new vice way more than twice/I’ve slept on bathroom floors”). “The Way You Don’t Look At Me” is such an effective record because of the breathier tone that Demi employs. Demi is a gifted singer that, more often than not, sings as if she’s trying to remind us and herself that she can, in fact, sing. Thankfully, for most of Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over, Demi seems to have finally gotten to a place where she doesn’t feel the need to belt every line of every song. Instead, she pays more attention to making smart vocal choices that elevate the stories of her songs instead of choices that prove her vocal talent in the most basic of ways. “The Kind Of Lover I Am” is another example where Demi lets the surf rock influences of the instrumental guide her breezy vocal performance. It’s a sweet and light-hearted number that features a spoken Auto-Tuned outro. Here, Demi is wearing her heart on her sleeve and being honest about everything that she will bring to the table as a partner. Nevertheless, she isn’t reliant on finding a lover to make her feel whole and that’s the message of The Art of Starting Over — the power and pertinence of rebirth and finding peace within yourself. “Carefully,” a country-influenced track, is thematically linked to “The Kind of Lover I Am” in the way that Demi pleads that a prospective lover handles her carefully. Gone are the days of Disney love songs. As Demi has matured, so has her understanding of love. “Carefully” addresses the nuances of loving somebody and actively acknowledging their flaws and shortcomings. It’s a raw look at what love is truly like.
Acoustic guitar grounds a solid portion of the album, but Demi still makes sure to feed her penchant for more full-bodied pop anthems on Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over. “Melon Cake,” a decidedly Katy Perry-esque number, utilizes a rollicking combination of upbeat drums and keyboard to address Demi’s relationship with food. On her birthdays, Demi’s old team used to serve her melon cakes (basically watermelon covered in fat-free whipped cream) instead of actual birthday cake. With lines like “People out here gettin’ fired for chocolate in the backseat” and snarky ad-libs, “Melon Cake” perfects the concept of the deceptive pop song. The bouncy melody and instrumental will get your head bopping, but the lyrics are a devastating look at the turmoil Demi’s eating disorders have caused her and her path forward from that. Two of the album’s biggest collaborators appear on the record’s two most straightforward pop songs. Fellow child-star-turned-global-pop-sensation Ariana Grande duets with Demi on the sultry “Met Him Last Night.” As two of the most talented vocalists in mainstream pop right now, Ariana and Demi could have easily hollered over a track for three minutes and called it a day. Instead, the pair made the smart decision to focus on intricate harmonies and a more restrained vocal approach. Complete with synths and strings, the song recalls the lane Ariana has crafted for herself on the thank u, next album. The two singers use “the devil” as a metaphor for temptation. Whether that temptation is a given vice, or a possible new lover, Demi and Ariana’s seductive tones convey the open-endedness of the song’s lyrics and the allure of temptation. “Met Him Last Night” not only connects to the larger motif of “the devil,” but it also pushes Demi outside of her comfort zone and finds her employing a rap-sung cadence on the bridge. Saweetie is the other marquee collaborator on the album, and she also happens to be the best thing about “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend.” The song isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that there are several songs that have done this concept with more finesse and the production feels half-baked in comparison to the rest of the album. While “Met Him Last Night” and “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” are, at best, enjoyable, the Noah Cyrus-assisted “Easy” is easily (pun intended) the best collaboration on the album. The dramatic ballad features some more country music influences, but it’s the vulnerability of the lyrics that make the song what it is. Demi and Noah sing “the hardest part of leavin’ is to hold the heavy breathing back/from showing you how hard it is for me to make it look so easy.” Between their vocal chemistry and the simple arrangement, every second of “Easy” feels like a punch to the gut in the best way possible.
As Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over draws to a close, Demi makes sure to address her current state. “California Sober” and “Good Place” work in tandem in that regard. The former is a heartfelt mid-tempo that explores the nonlinear nature of recovery. The title refers to a practice where those who are recovering from addiction refrain from most drugs but smoke marijuana and drink in moderation. Demi’s struggles with sobriety have played out in front of the whole world, and her Dancing With The Devil YouTube documentary showcased how damaging and ineffective previous treatments were for her. As controversial as the practice is, Demi embraces it with this freeing track. The latter, the aptly titled “Good Place,” is the final track on the album’s standard track listing. The track sounds exactly as the title suggests. There’s nothing left-field here, just an honest and gratifying reflection on Demi’s past and a hopeful look toward her future. It is truly a gift when an artist, especially one of Demi’s caliber and stature, opens up their heart and soul and takes us on a journey through their music. This album could have benefitted from a trimming of the tracklist and sequencing that makes for smoother transitions. Nevertheless, Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over is Demi’s best album yet. She has truly tapped into the essence of her artistry and created a record that feels distinctly hers. It’s great to hear Demi sing again because that’s what she was put here to do, and she has so much more life ahead of her.
Key Tracks: “Mad World” | “Met Him Last Night” | “Easy” | “ICU” | “Good Place” | “The Way You Don’t Look At Me”