Demi Lovato’s ‘Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over’ Is a Reckoning and Rebirth

It feels a little mean to criticize Demi Lovato given how publicly she’s discussed her personal ups and downs that have become the inspiration, and inevitably, subject matter for her songs, but the unfortunate truth is that “Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over” unspools far too frequently like the musical equivalent of a meeting that could have been an email. Across 19 sprawling tracks, Lovato mines a troubled past while insisting upon her confidence and self-sufficiency in a way that definitely feels more like overcompensation than made-it-to-the-other-side liberation, and occasionally, confesses too much information for anybody outside her closest friends. That said, when she isn’t nakedly rattling the foundations of her sometimes limited vocal range, she delivers some fun bops and even a couple of empowerment anthems that fans new and old will be happy to hear while getting ready for a post-pandemic night out with friends.

On physical media, the first three tracks are lumped into a section called “Prelude.” What they are is a three-act story of her 2018 overdose; but as powerfully as these songs convey the sensations that accompanied that harrowing experience — the aloneness (“Anyone”), the escape and descent (“Dancing With The Devil”), and the desire to protect her half-sister Madison from following in her footsteps (“ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)”), they might have worked better as an EP released just before issuing the album. Consequently, they end up feeling like supplemental listening for the rest of the tracks, which settle quickly into more familiar, and ultimately catchier rhythms of pop introspection.

After a brief “Intro” with Track Four, she delivers a solid Stevie Nicks-by-way-of-Selena Gomez impersonation on the self-explanatory “The Art of Starting Over,” where she delivers the first of many truly great lyrics: “Thank god I got me to hold me… It didn’t long to realize / That the woman in me does not cry / For a man who is a boy and he does not deserve this.” That sort of merciless self-reflection is where Lovato really finds her stride — not meant as a cruel put-down to a former partner but a moment of recognition who she was with and why they’re not worth tearing herself apart. Less successful, however, is the chugging “Lonely People,” where she acquiesces too frequently to empty platitudes (“Guess we’re all lonely people / All that love is / Is a means to an end”) in search of a rallying cry. But if “The Way You Don’t Look At Me” edges candidly, uncomfortably close to desperation, she rebounds confidently with “Melon Cake,” a cheeky chronicle of being controlled early in her career (“the cat and mouse tried to make me Barbie sized”) that eventually arrives at a glorious moment of self-actualization (“Dear little me / I’m sorry that it took so long but baby you’re free”).

Lovato more or less gives her earlier song “Dancing With The Devil” the Ariana Grande treatment on “Met Him Last Night,” a less explicit characterization of addiction that shifts its focus to other kinds of abuse — emotional and physical — but makes you think she should have chosen one or the other, at least for the sake of the album. Singing opposite Sam Fisher, “What Other People Say” persists in exploring this masochistic impulse as she admits “now I’m all fucked up and my heart’s changed / cause I care more about what other people say,” a power ballad that strains towards gospel-style uplift but eventually feels more theatrical than transcendent. But even if it often virtually duplicates the musicality of her former “Barney” co-star Selena Gomez, “Carefully” delivers a more successful balance for Lovato between admissions of her shortcomings and aspirations to repair them, much less to find someone to help her do so (“So if you think you can handle me / Please handle me carefully / This could be my favorite dream / Tell me nobody could love me like you do”).

“The Kind of Lover I Am” continues this lovely, unforced strain of hope and positivity, like its predecessor made meaningful because it builds on all of that insecurity but not merely languishing in it (“I’m not the type to call you out and fight in front of your friends / But oh lord we’ll be having some words in my Mercedes Benz”). That it ends with a confessional riff insisting she doesn’t need anybody, but “just want(s) to love,” feels more like a statement for herself than the listener, but even unnecessarily autotuned, it’s a cute moment. Shifting back into power ballad territory on “Easy,” she again uses too many cliched phrases (“I’ll leave through the gift shop”) as a lyricist — this time to express the bittersweet sentiment of a relationship’s end — but she also strikes a powerfully relatable balance between moving on and looking back (“I hope you forgive me / Even though I’m, not apologizing / I will try to do the same for you”). She then channels Adele a bit on “15 Minutes,” a kiss-off anthem (“Packed your stuff you can come and get it / Ain’t goodbye but it’s good riddance”) that bumps on a mid tempo beat.

Featuring Saweetie, who recently went through her own very public breakup, “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend” offers exactly the right soundtrack for a night on the town with a gaggle of recently-single female friends; Saweetie was already poised for mainstream “arrival” well before recording this, but if it’s more modest than Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” it should resonate with a similar kind of universality. Although it feels a little late in the album, much less her career, to try and redirect the public’s sense of her like she does on “California Sober,” where she sings, “Tired of being Known for my sickness /Didn’t work I’m trying something different,” Lovato undercuts the effort by following it up with a cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World,” another song about perception versus reality, and the struggles of its singer to reconcile the two. 

Nevertheless, she winds the album down on two positive notes, first with “Butterfly,” a delicate exploration of her “growing into who I’m meant to be,” which undermines itself only by using the most obvious metaphor of all time. But even if “Good Place” feels a bit like a highlight reel of the stuff that she’s gone through — topics covered in earlier songs, much less experiences from her life — she delivers the recap with exactly the sense of forward-thinking hope that makes you think she actually is in a good place, and not just telling listeners what they hope to hear about this troubled superstar. Ultimately, it takes a while for “Dancing With The Devil” to find its groove, but even where Lovato stumbles musically, she does more than deliver a fresh start: she makes us excited to hear what she does next. 

Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over” releases April 2 on Apple Music.