By Rachael Gottlieb
Boston University News Service
On “Dancing with the Devil…The Art of Starting Over,” Demi Lovato offers listeners a journey through her personal battles with substance use disorder and mental health. It’s her first full-length album since nearly-fatally overdosing in 2018, and a new four-part documentary produced by Michael D. Ratner by the same name accompanies its release. The songs on the 19-track album closely resemble the recountings Lovato gives in the documentary and others that she’s publicly disclosed in the past.
A question dangles after listening: to what degree is “Devil” catharsis, and to which is it publicity for a well-timed comeback?
Much of Lovato’s past work has similarly encompassed the challenges of her personal life. About 10 years ago, when her struggles with mental health and substance use became public knowledge, the MTV documentary “Demi Lovato: Staying Strong Lovato” was released, as was her song “Skyscraper.” Another documentary detailing her personal experiences, “Simply Complicated,” was released on YouTube in 2017. Months later, the song “Sober,” in which she sings “Mama, I’m so sorry/I’m not sober anymore,” debuted. Only a month after, she overdosed on a combination of substances, including fentanyl, and nearly died.
This newest album opens with the track “Anyone,” which details her struggles to get help and feel heard through battles with substances and mental health. Lovato debuted the song at the 2020 Grammy Awards. In the performance, she choked back tears as she began singing. Only a few seconds in, she turned to her pianist to start over before continuing amid applause and a tear streaming down her cheek. It’s hard to watch the performance without feeling the impact of Lovato’s raw emotion. The same impact stands in the recorded version that opens the new album. It sounds like Lovato’s vocals are only minimally edited or not edited at all, as her sharp yet raspy tone cries, “Lord, send me anyone.”
We’re then taken to the title track, “Dancing with the Devil.” It opens with the words, “It’s just a little red wine, I’ll be fine,” and the chilling “It’s just a little white line, I’ll be fine/But soon a little white line becomes a glass pipe,” in the second verse. Lovato discusses in the album’s sister documentary how her 2018 relapse did in fact begin with wine, and quickly spiraled into crack, meth, and heroin use. In the chorus, she sings “Almost made it to heaven/It was closer than you know.” After watching the documentary, it’s hard not to think about the part where she confirms doctors told her she was 15 minutes from death when EMTs arrived at her home after overdosing when hearing this line.
The album features lyrics that closely mirror quotes from Lovato’s previous interviews that you can almost hear the spoken words as the music plays. As a result, they lack the creativity and imagination a listener might hope to hear when getting a deeper look into a musicians’ emotions through song. Themes surrounding the public portions of her personal life are common throughout the album. As such, it doesn’t offer many new insights upon the first few listens.
This can be observed in “ICU,” an ode to her 19-year-old sister Madison De La Garza. In the “Devil” documentary, Lovato says she was temporarily blind after overdosing and could not physically see Madison as she stood over her bedside and spoke to her when she regained consciousness. Lovato sings in the chorus, “‘Cause I was blind/But now I see/Clearly I see you.” If you didn’t know that Lovato literally was blind and could not see her sister for a period of time, these lyrics might come across as a cliched and overused metaphor.
With each song so closely matching the experiences Lovato describes in interviews, it’s hard to know how much of the album is genuine and cathartic and how much is meant to build on a narrative the public is already familiar with. It’s probably a little of both. As Lovato has lived a publicly visible life since her “Camp Rock” days in 2008, perhaps such public statements about the challenges she’s faced offer a therapeutic release, or maybe they are the only ways she knows how to cope.
In 2019, though, Scooter Braun began to manage Lovato’s career. Braun also manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, who’s also encountered a fair share of public controversy. Braun has become famous in his own right for managing them through their career ups and downs by producing work that closely resembles public narratives surrounding them (think Grande’s viral song “thank u, next”). He is also credited as an executive producer of the 2021 documentary about Lovato. With this information in mind, it is possible to view the album as a PR move.
The album’s sound is decidedly more soft pop than dance or electronic pop, like Lovato’s previous album, “Tell Me You Love Me,” was. Her vocals are strong throughout, too, and many of the tracks have the same light-to-no editing that “Anyone” does. Songs like these stand out against the few dancier and lighthearted tunes like “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” (whatever your first impression of that one is based on the title, you’re probably right).
Halfway through the album is the power ballad “Easy,” a duet with Noah Cyrus. Both singers repeatedly and breathily belt the words, “The hardest part of leaving is to make it look so easy,” in each chorus, and accompany each other with various high-register “ooh”s and “ahh”s throughout. In contrast, too, is a cover of Gary Jules’ “Mad World” at the end of the album. The song’s trademark meandering piano melody accompanies a lighter sound in Lovato’s voice, ensuring the song’s haunting quality is not lost. It’s a reminder that through the headlines about her personal life, the longevity of Lovato’s career can at least in part be attributed to her distinctive wide vocal range that is not dissimilar from her colleague Grande’s.
Since the album’s release three weeks ago, Lovato has continued to publicly speak about the topics she highlights in her new songs. This past week she posted a story to her Instagram account calling out a frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles for carrying “diet foods,” like sugar-free cookies. The move was met with backlash from some, including the yogurt shop itself, which responded that they carry different desserts to accommodate multiple dietary restrictions. Lovato apologized to those who disagreed with her stance and added that she’d continue to speak out for what she believes in. She talks apparently with no script while also wearing a shirt with an enlarged logo from Justin Bieber’s clothing line, Drew House, on it. As Bieber and Lovato share a manager, these two elements in the 8-minute video brew the same conflicting feelings of catharsis vs. PR that the album does.
Personally, I’m rooting for Lovato. Struggles related to mental health or substance use can often be lifelong battles that never truly end, and fighting them is far from a one-size-fits-all approach. For Lovato, a former child star who’s maintained her fame and influence as an adult, perhaps coping publicly is an approach that works for her. I commend her for giving voice to issues that society continues to stigmatize by and large. Granted the trajectory of her career (and not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the music industry), it’s hard to know where she’ll go from here. I hope it’s somewhere she can feel at peace.