Since her emancipation from the Disney Channel’s clutches, Demi Lovato has become one of pop’s leading motivational figures, wailing songs about self-empowerment and talking to Congress about destigmatizing mental illness. Openly discussing her struggles with bipolar disorder, bulimia and substance abuse, she has settled into herself in a manner similar to put-it-all-out-there pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Pink. Even the 23-year-old’s winkingly sapphic smash “Cool for the Summer,” the first single from her fifth album, Confident, operates in be-yourself mode.
Lovato’s sultry growling about “something that we want to try” and the pulsing track’s tinkling piano bring heat as the days grow shorter, but “Summer” is a somewhat deceptive lead-in to Confident. Befitting Lovato’s rough journey, the songs are moodier and heavier; even uptempo cuts like the defiant “Old Ways” and the swinging title track have darkness lurking underneath, like they’re sonically rebuking anyone who wants to get in Lovato’s way.
In some ways, Confident updates the adult-contemporary album archetype for tween graduates. Throughout, Lovato’s clarion voice is front and center on midtempo tracks that assert her stronger-than-yesterday bona fides. The majestic devotional “For You” has a backup choir singing “For you I would do anything” as Lovato sings about summoning strength, her performance making her inner power even more plain. “Stone Cold,” a post-breakup love letter, puts Lovato squarely in Adele mode; she’s belting out the verses but downright wistful when she drops her voice and breathes “I’m happy for you” to her former lover, who has found comfort in another. The Ryan Tedder/StarGate collaboration “Wildfire” is a little more forward-sounding, with pillowy synths and snaps floating around her voice. At times the pace can be a bit monotonous, but Lovato’s strong alto keeps things tight.
Lovato invited only female MCs to guest, an admirable gesture in line with the girl-power message that drives Confident. But the album’s overall statement might have been stronger had she gone totally solo. Iggy Azalea’s underwhelming comeback verse (“Gather ’round, now I’m back from my holiday/Long live the queen what the people say”) drags down “Kingdom Come,” while rapper Sirah’s breathy contribution to the vengeful “Waitin’ for You” blunts the song’s stark effect.
Confident closes with “Father,” a choir-assisted elegy for Lovato’s biological father, who died in 2013. He and Lovato had been estranged for six years prior to his death, and the lyrics are a raw trip through psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. On it, Lovato sings about regret and guilt, about clung-to anger and, eventually, the hope that he’s in a more peaceful place. It’s a jaw-dropping finale and makes Confident more than just an album title. Lovato not only channels her mourning, she exposes its uglier side (“You did your best/Or did you?/Sometimes I think I hate you,” she sings at one point).
Lovato’s growth since her debut as a tween TV star has been public, and it hasn’t been without stumbles. But her willingness to own every step and misstep, and to show her audience how the rough times helped her become the woman she is, makes Confident a surprisingly compelling listen.
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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of Billboard.