Demi Lovato Is Single, Soulful and Ready For the Kill on ‘Tell Me You Love Me': Review
It’s been a long two years since Demi Lovato last strutted onto the charts and into our hearts.
Those with memories of her longstanding rivalry with fellow Disney expat Miley Cyrus may remember that their contest was, in its original iteration, about the charts. Early in the 2010s, both made large, opulent guest-packed grabs at world domination: the Timbaland-featuring Unbroken in 2011 and the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced Bangerz in 2013. Miley’s powerhouse anthems, more in tune with trap’s eventual takeover of pop radio, made the numerically bigger impact, but both artists made a point of disavowing their efforts as products of some less authentic versions of their selves.
“I got sick of the songs,” Demi said of the biggest charting hits of her career only two years later. “When I would play them onstage, I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't play these anymore.” (Miley would do the same, albeit only earlier this year, notoriously disavowing her hits as flirtations with hip-hop culture that didn’t represent the self she now identifies with.)
But this has been Demi’s project from the very start: “Don’t Forget,” the glittering power-pop meets Smashing Pumpkins blast from her debut of the same name drew a line in the sand between the kind of singer she wanted to be and the peppy Camp Rock personality she desperately wanted to leave behind. It was this determination hiding behind the cameras that had many labeling her “the least musically predictable of her Disney class,” capable of pulling off delicious summer bangers right alongside tearjerkers confronting issues like self harm and anorexia.
Sure, packed in between the moments were the wince-inducing pop-rap of “You're My Only Shorty” or the two-years-too-late Icona Pop-yelps of “Really Don't Care,” but Lovato seemed to assure us each time that these gestures were never the real her. “It just wasn't fun for me. It wasn't soulful,” she told Noisey about her last album just a few days before Tell Me You Love Me released on September 29.
Like Miley's Younger Now, Demi's new album is the work of taking old sounds and injecting them with a new, personal context. Right now, she's newly single and you can feel it on her latest: These are songs to bellow after coming home late at night. These are songs built for whatever situation-ship you're in, whether you want to break free or want something to last until next week. And from old school soul to '80s schmaltz, she has a lot of history to work with.
Because this is a culmination of what Demi has been doing from the very start, she arguably has more options than Miley, Kesha or Gaga, and there’s no need to lean on someone like Dolly Parton to feel authentic (who, remarkably, appears on both Kesha and Miley's comeback records). Lovato is free to call upon Lil Wayne instead, who doubles as one of the most underrated crooners of the past decade and her only collaboration on Tell Me You Love Me, despite having reportedly worked with Pharrell and Mike WiLL Made-It in the past year.
But if Confident was a record that balanced simmering electropop gymnastics with dollops of soul-bearing material, Tell Me You Love Me doubles down on the latter, the work of a pop artist determined to create her own world. It’s her party now and she’ll love who she wants.
Below, we break down the record, track by track.
“Sorry Not Sorry”
The album opener and lead single contains the record’s only nod to trap, with an intro that feels like a DJ’s tagline. When she lets loose with a rollicking chant of "And baby, I'm the baddest / You f---in' with a savage," it feels like something a PG-13 version of 21 Savage would breathily mumble. But it’s great—a catchy empowerment tune held together by the kind of go-get-'em-girls choir that used to rule the charts circa Destiny’s Child and TLC. Here, Lovato’s idea of having revenge is having fun: it’s a pool party that you actually want to be invited to. “This is an anthem for anyone who’s ever been hated on,” she tweeted back in July.
“Tell Me You Love Me”
Per Lovato, this is the one that the record execs wanted to make lead but Jay-Z set them straight. It’s easy to see why: It swells, it booms, but it doesn’t quite have you yelling the chorus at your haters. This is the flip side of being single: belting out alone in the shower, with John Hill bringing in the kind of minimal, lone-bap drums he gave Florence Welsh on “What Kind of Man” back in 2015. Tell Me You Love Me gives Lovato at her most confrontational—after the slow-mo party rocking of “Sorry Not Sorry,” she’s letting us in the afterparty.
“Sexy Dirty Love”
The single side of Lovato would not be complete without something sultry, ‘80s-Madonna fashion. "Lord knows I am sinning, please forgive me for my lust," she sings. Complete with reverberating futuristic funk that feel licked right off a Janelle Monáe record, "Sexy Dirty Love" has the breathy air of dreams all over it, more “Love Myself” than “Push It.” It may all just be in her mind but it sure feels good.
“You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore”
The moment Lovato’s vocals light up, Lovatics will likely ready themselves for another version of “Stone Cold,” the Confident-era powerhouse ballad that inaugurated Lovato as a vocalist determined to join the ranks of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone as one of the belting lighting rods of pop. But the complex production underneath “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore” tell a different story. Featuring buzzing synthesizers you can barely hear and string sections working overtime, the absence of a choir gives lets Lovato use her voice to sculpt the kind of pain that permits little release. At moments, the song evokes the kind of lighter-raised hum of mid-career Portishead. Contrary to rumors, her album’s darkest torch song isn’t about any rejected lover but, instead, about Lovato breaking free from her own destructive behaviors.
Can someone please stomp on my heart so I can properly appreciate the stone-cold bop sitting in the middle of Tell Me You Love Me? Story-wise, it feels something like the flip side to “Father,” the touching ballad packed toward the end of Confident, dedicated to her late father. Now, over raging electronics, she’s tells us about “all the therapy that I've been through.” But, as mentioned, it’s also a bop: Kinda like what would happen if “Mr. Brightside”-era Killers were commissioned to write a song for Lana Del Rey based entirely on having seen the cover of Ready to Die once. It’s pretty fantastic.
“Ruin the Friendship”
Keeping the moody, flickering grooves going, “Ruin the Friendship” kicks up the steam a notch. The thin, down-by-the-bayou horns work far better than expected, especially accompanied "Put down your cigar and pick me up / Play me your guitar, that song I love.” Debate over the identity of the guitarist in question set Lovato nation on fire this weekend, with speculation settling on former co-star and tour mate Nick Jonas, a guitar-player and notable cigar aficionado. “This song is sexy, fun and a little scandalous,” Lovato told fans at a New York pop-up over the weekend.
Lovato conspiracy-theorists were given even more fuel by the first lines following “Ruin the Friendship”’s wary tale of transgressing platonic love: "I've been thinking about the future / And I've been thinking about the now," a nod to the Future Now Tour Lovato and Jonas co-headlined in 2016. But here, she hasn’t made the move just yet—over a scathingly minimal beat, Lovato warns a certain someone that she’s not going to wait forever.
Fizzing firecrackers. Those street lights Kanye is always talking about. She’s giving a moody performance until she gets lonely and, suddenly, as if she’s been waiting to break out the whole time, she releases her inner Christina Aguilera, circa-“Beautiful." Just as soon as you think this is late night jam playlist material, Lil Wayne comes on and delivers some of his best bars in the past year.
Here, Lovato steps back a little. The production leans back too and, instead, she uses the space to give her all to a catchy couplet that will get stuck in your head: "I'm no cry baby, but you make me cry, baby." At some point, a slow burning guitar solo simmers by and feels like it was picked off Prince’s cutting room floor. “This song is about becoming something or someone that you're not,” Lovato said about the track.
A bitter counterpoint to the waterworks of “Cry Baby,” Demi comes rolling back with venom. "I date men, but you're acting like a little boy" effortlessly rolls off her tongue. Succinctly, she distills the rage to describe the roller coaster anyone who has been in a relationship for years suddenly feels the moment they have to deal with people all over again. It’s a bummer.
A gorgeous acoustic jam that bubbles into fizzy waves that never quite hit the shore, Lovato sounds incredibly serious about wanting to “make music when you’re moaning.” The production, on that note, is surprisingly restrained, certain moments recalling JoJo’s 2012 hit, “Demonstrate.” Lyrically, Lovato is more adventurous: a bedroom kingdom where she imagines being locked down “from night until morning.” In a better world, this would appear on one of those Fifty Shades of Grey soundtracks.
The single life can get tiring. You want to go to that? Now? Do I really even know you? After some flirtations, “Hitchhiker” suggests that, at any rate, Lovato is ready to put the hat on the rack—at least for the right now, at least for this record. Because that’s the charm of its titular metaphor, the car you ride on will stop at some point and you’ll get off. "And I pretend I'm not anxious, but oh, you're driving me crazy," she warns anybody getting too comfortable.
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