We know so much about Demi Lovato, yet less than we thought. The 28-year-old Disney actress turned pop star seemed as open about her addiction and personal troubles as any public figure, yet her new four-part YouTube series, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (the third documentary about her life in which she’s had a part), reveals that much of her candor was a facade concealing even deeper trauma.
As Lovato confesses on the doc’s companion album, Dancing With the Devil … The Art of Starting Over, “I told you I was OK, but I was lying.” Lovato begins her seventh full-length by surveying the wreckage of her past on three soul-searchers, including the massive piano ballad “Anyone,” which she belts with rafter-shaking need to reach an emotional high point the rest of the album can’t quite match.
After that prelude, Lovato promises to begin her life again with “The Art of Starting Over,” which projects assurance without bravado. When “the devil” shows up again on “Met Him Last Night,” a trap-beat duet with Ariana Grande, he’s no longer a personification of Lovato’s inner torment but just another charming male deceiver. Still, she’ll have much more to say about the damaging demands of pop stardom.
Lovato addresses these problems with varying degrees of success. The focus of “What Other People Say,” about how the temptations of Los Angeles caused her to stop praying or calling her mom, is too broad. She fares better when she’s more specific: tackling her eating disorders on “Melon Cake,” dissing starfuckers on “15 Minutes,” or outlining her recovery plan on “California Sober,” which is about kicking harder drugs by allowing yourself moderate alcohol and weed use.
There’s nothing on Dancing With the Devil that’s quite of the caliber of Lovato’s past brassy, uptempo struts, no “Confident” or “Sorry Not Sorry” or “Cool for the Summer.” But there are playful moments. On “The Kind of Lover I Am,” Lovato offers fickle but intense affection, saying “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick, I don’t care if you’ve got a W.A.P.” The sexiest song here, oddly enough, is the slinky yet strictly platonic chicks-over-dicks number “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” with Saweetie.
Lovato is not given to understatement — her performances are consistently in the red emotionally, and favor self-expression rather than inviting listener intimacy. And on the final third of the album she grasps for insight: The world doesn’t need yet another cover of Tears for Fears “Mad World,” and “Butterfly” relies on an overworked symbol of rebirth. Ultimately Dancing With the Devil delivers on the promise of the first half of its title, and skimps on the second. She’s been through hell, it’s clear. But her music isn’t clear about how she wants to begin again.