At this point, Demi Lovato’s story of success is well-known and does not need to be further dissected. In 2012, the 20-year-old scored her biggest hit to date with the sumptuously simple “Give Your Heart a Break,” headlined a well-received summer tour to support her 2011 album “Unbroken” and increased her national profile by sitting on “The X Factor” judges panel; Lovato was a musical star to those who didn’t know the details of her prior personal struggles, and many of those who did viewed the singer as a source of inspiration. As anticipation mounted for her next full-length, pop fans didn’t wonder if the album was going to be a success, but whether or not it would bring the singer to the upper echelon of the genre, to a place reserved for vocalists with a deep catalogue of hits and a magnetism that makes them empirically unavoidable.
“Demi,” her fourth album, could have been a victory lap for Lovato, but it’s far more than a paint-by-numbers pop album engineered to produce three radio singles and not much else. To be sure, this album contains uptempo tracks that could rule the dog days of summer once lead single “Heart Attack” presumably ceases making its hay in the spring; “Made in the USA,” “Really Don’t Care” and especially the fantastic “Something That We’re Not” all find the right combination of bubblegum fun and Lovato’s overpowering pipes. And fans of “Skyscraper” should latch onto ballads like “In Case” and “Warrior,” the latter of which lets Lovato reiterate everything that she’s overcome to get to such an envious career and personal position.
Most impressively, however, “Demi” takes risks. Some of them don’t work out too well — the most glaring example being the misguided dance stunt “Neon Lights” — but it’s more entertaining to hear Lovato take a few sonic detours, on songs like the pensive “Shouldn’t Come Back” and prodding “Without The Love,” than exist in one immobile position. The singer has a strong grip on her skills as a performer, but is still chiseling away at the formula that works best for her as an artist, and is unwittingly putting that self-discovery on display here. “Demi” may or may not launch Lovato to a new level of stardom, but it demands attention for fully capturing a singer’s personality at a fascinating moment in her career. It’s an imperfect album, but it’s better that way.
Which songs on “Demi” are worth repeated listens? Check out Billboard’s track-by-track breakdown and listen to some of the highlights below.
1. Heart Attack
Months after its release, the lead single’s brightest qualities have become even more luminescent, and Lovato’s performance is still one at which to marvel. Backed by the Suspex’s crackling wall of percussion and a prodding guitar lick, Lovato allows her fully bloomed personality to carry the song, accenting syllables for added effect on the pre-chorus and belting the bridge without abandon.
2. Made in the USA
“Our love runs deep like a Chevy” is a pretty unusual way to describe the depth of one’s emotions, and the opening line is (thankfully) the only name-checked brand to coyly tie the song to the stars and stripes. Instead, “Made in the USA” plays out like a grown-up version of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA,” with shout-outs to both coasts bookending a wistful guitar lick and some fierce romantic statements.
3. Without The Love – The album’s most enjoyable sucker-punch of a hook — “Why are you singing me love songs/What good is a love song/What good is a love song… without the love?” — is paired with lush, detailed production, highlighted by strings that soar in between plucks. Lovato sneers gleefully, and even pitches out a Joe DiMaggio simile or two for good measure.
4. Neon Lights
Lovato heads over to the club lyrically and sonically with a bid to Guetta-fy her radio persona. The results are mixed: the blinking synthesizers and clomping bass receive a boost from the singer’s unflappable power, but “Neon Lights” covers well-worn electro-pop territory, and can’t reach the effervescent high of something like Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”
5. Two Pieces – Demi ditches the fluttering dance rhythm of “Neon Lights” and grabs a guitar for “Two Pieces,” a cinematic anthem meant to be performed while standing outside of an ex’s house in the pouring rain. Once again, Lovato utilizes the subtleties of the quieter verses to gather and store vocal energy for the showy refrain.
6. Nightingale – This is the type of ballad that Lovato makes look like a lay-up: the theatrical notes are in place, but so is the patience, maturity and attitude that establish the singer from her pop peers. “Nightingale” soars when Lovato is joined by a chorus of backup vocalists in its final passage; if she can perfect this song live, that finale could become enlightening.
7. In Case
The details of the lyrics are reminiscent of Ne-Yo’s breakout hit “So Sick”: wasted food in the refrigerator, faded photos in a pant pocket, a dirty jacket salvaged for its memories. The small twinges of loss that congeal into a sorrowful whole make “In Case” the most affecting song on “Demi.”
8. Really Don’t Care feat. Cher Lloyd
After the heavy one-two punch of “Nightingale” and “In Case,” “Really Don’t Care” is a buoyant reprieve, the pop equivalent of a glass of cool lemonade on a hot summer day, and an obvious single choice. “Now if we meet up on the street, I won’t be running scared!/I’ll walk right up to you and put one finger in the air!” Lovato sings with beguiling sassiness, before Cher Lloyd struts in for an curiously brief cameo.
9. Fire Starter – Nope, it’s not a Prodigy remake, but a well-written piece of personal chest-thumping over a springy beat. With an oscillating synth riff, unrelenting kick drum and drum breakdown during the finale chorus, “Fire Starter” allows Lovato to sink her teeth into some slick pop-rock.
10. Something That We’re Not
Lovato takes the melody for a stroll and then lets it sprint on the hook, cramming every syllable of this nimble kiss-off with unadulterated joy. Everything about the song works: the sun-stroked guitar lick, the bratty “Hey!” interjections, the revved-up incredulity of the line “You wanna be more than just friends!,” and of course, Lovato’s delirious engaging delivery. Brace for blissful ubiquity if this thing hits radio.
11. Never Been Hurt – Anything following “Something That We’re Not” on the album would have trouble reaching that dizzying high, and while “Never Been Hurt” serves as a solid counterpart to “Heart Attack” with its self-destructing electronics, the track never quite sets itself apart from the superior uptempo cuts on the album. Well-intentioned and amiable, but just not a standout.
12. Shouldn’t Come Back – After flaunting her pyrotechnic voice throughout the album, Lovato (relatively) dials it down and glumly suggests that the one she’s missing the most is probably better off gone. Her voice inevitably swells during the climax, but the technical decision to treat the subject matter as demurely as possible pays off handsomely.
Most of “Demi” sidesteps the personal struggles — and Lovato’s triumph over them — that she laid out on “Unbroken,” but “Warrior” serves as a follow-up visit to “Skyscraper” territory, this time with the singer declaring herself a phoenix that has risen from all-too-public ashes. “I’ve got shame, I’ve got scars, that I will never show/I’m a survivor, in more ways than you’ll know,” Lovato sings as a piano line volleys with a cello.