These days, it seems the term “serious popstar” is a bit of an oxymoron. In many cases, today’s popstars are either so twee and bubble-gummy that it makes your gums hurt to listen to them, or their personal lives are so filled with self-inflicted drama that it’s impossible to take them seriously.
Disney-TV-sweetheart-turned-talent-show-judge Demi Lovato could very easily have found herself in either of these two gutters: groomed for stardom in the very epicenter of bubblegum culture, yet plagued publicly by the personal demons of heartbreak, depression, bulimia and cutting. But Lovato somehow managed to push past the pitfalls of musical mediocrity while leaning into her personal struggles for source material; the result was Unbroken, a record which caused many people to question her musical foray into R&B, but which lyrically and emotionally came off as honest, authentic and courageous.
Now, with Demi, Lovato’s fourth studio album, it feels like she has come full circle, and in the context of both her life and discography to date, it plays like a statement of closure, a story of success. Perhaps just as importantly, it positions her as a serious popstar who has successfully navigated the narrow road between mediocre artistry and self-sabotage.
Specifically, there are several things that this album does remarkably right. First, Lovato has ditched the oft-questioned R&B vibe and leaned back toward her pop/rock roots. (Think a little less Rihanna, a little more Kelly Clarkson.) Second, with the exception of a couple of ill-advised thumpy dance numbers (“Neon Lights” and “Really Don’t Care”), Demi really makes the vocals the musical centerpiece. This album really works as electro-pop, but the electronics are not the main event. Lovato’s vocals shine through in solid, strong melody lines and hooks (for example, the single/opening track “Heart Attack”, video below) that frankly are uncharacteristic for this particular sub-genre of pop, making many of the tracks both engaging and refreshing. And Lovato’s vocal work on ballads like “Nightingale” and “In Case” is brilliant.
Third—and this is a big one—Lovato doesn’t overplay her hand emotionally. Unbroken was an album that needed to be made, at least from the standpoint of processing pain, but Demi gives the listener a welcome emotional break. The sadness and honesty are present in the break-up songs and in lyrics like “I will love you like I’ve never been hurt,” but those emotions do not dominate as in the last album. Instead, this album plays simply like a collection of good songs sung by an artist who has come through the fire, perhaps a bit singed and smelling like smoke, but not destroyed.
And this is precisely why Demi feels like a coming-full-circle type of record. Just as with her previous record, Demi Lovato has made exactly the record that needed to be made at this point in her life and career. Demi is a strong album on its own merits, but it is also very much an album of context, a testament to coming of age and overcoming struggles—a story of success that we certainly hope will continue to unfold.