Each new Demi Lovato album seems to come with some pronouncement that this time, this one is finally the real her. And in a way, she’s right every time.
Since her early solo career, Lovato has built a brand on being remarkably candid in her music about personal struggles with depression and addiction, and perhaps most notably, the lingering trauma from her years as a Disney channel star.
That honesty has been a constant in her music as she has played with different genres and tinkered with exactly what kind of pop star she wants to be, trying to land on the right way to express herself.
All that said, Holy Fvck (★★★☆☆) feels like a much more significant about-face than we have seen before, sounding much more like the reinvention she promised us on last year’s Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over.
It has been billed as a return to the pop-punk roots of her 2008 debut, and in many ways it comes across as a late-aughts throwback as she sheds much of her pop polish, bringing plenty of grit and snarl to the surface.
Lovato’s vocals are a mix of simultaneous ecstasy and anger, belting out defiant, dramatic lyrics on songs like “Eat Me” and “Wasted.” The punky “Come Together” feels like equal parts a return to something basic and a coming into her own.
On one absolute standout track, the soaring “29,” Lovato recounts the growing up she has done since she was 17, her voice dripping with scorn as she reflects on its predatory nature and the ways she can now clearly see she was taken advantage of.
It is a captivating, well-constructed, acidic track, but just behind the venom is the lucid recognition that sometimes we become stronger in spite of, not because of the hard times we go through.
Lovato fires off one blast of pop-punk after another and almost doesn’t let up. It is easy to get swept up in at first, and the stronger tracks keep it interesting, but having the volume constantly turned up to 11 begins to drag down the album.
At the same time, some of the weakest moments on Holy Fvck are those where she briefly dials things back. “4 Ever 4 Me” marks a strange detour as Lovato veers into a pop ballad without adjusting her screamy energy, making for a disjointed listen.
“Happy Ending” is somewhat satisfying as a dig at the people who held her up as a teen sensation and the damage they did to her, but is unsatisfyingly cloying and falls into the trap of self-seriousness that she so successfully avoids elsewhere. It is as frank and real as anything on the album, but feels like a letdown coming immediately after the outstanding “29.”
Unsubtle as it all is on the surface, the album’s strength lies in Lovato’s ability to deftly walk the line between on-the-nose sincerity and self-aware irreverence. Her half-cheeky, half-melodramatic ethos this time around is of a piece with the funeral she held for her pop music earlier this year.
As raw as she gets, at this point in her career she is fully aware that when you take your art to extremes, as she does, after a certain point it will end up sounding a bit silly.
Lovato wants us to know that she is in on the joke, though, whether she is playing with the cutesy euphemism “jump your bones” on her otherwise markedly literal sex anthem “Bones” or throwing around bitingly sardonic lyrics on “City of Angels,” her personal piece of hate mail to the city of Los Angeles.
Hearing her have fun and bring her sense of humor to an album built around heavy subject matter adds dimension to it, and perhaps more importantly, helps Lovato come across comfortable and assured in her skin and her persona as an artist.
If it all seems very unsubtle, that is kind of the point. Holy Fvck feels like it emerged unfiltered from the heart in a way that feels like it has been a while since we have seen.
In its best moments, it feels freeing and cathartic, especially for Lovato herself. Whether she sticks with this fierce pop-punk sensibility or ends up moving on to yet another reinvention, this latest turn is one she can take pride in.
Holy Fvck is now available to stream and purchase in physical and digital download formats. Visit www.demilovato.com.
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