Monday, October 19, 2015

album review: 'confident' by demi lovato

You know, throughout the course of Billboard BREAKDOWN I've come develop an odd dislike for a certain type of pop anthem, the sort that has only gotten more popular in recent years due to the return of sleepy, sanitized easy listening pop: the 'self-esteem anthem'. Now of course the broad concept can work and still have some emotional power: we all have low points and can be inspired by the right tune that pulls our spirits skyward, but there's a key element I've seen missing in so many of these songs that really bothers me: a sense of drama. In the best of cases, you get the feeling that the person who is singing is speaking with real purpose and populism to address a real wrong, or that they themselves have pushed through the crisis and are all the stronger for it. And what's even trickier is that there's no one formula to make it work: sometimes it's in the writing, sometimes the melodic swell, sometimes the expansive production, but most of the time it's in the performance.

And one of the things that tends to annoy me so much about many of these performances is how 'safe' they feel. There's nothing raw or fiery in the delivery, nothing that gets the blood coursing or show that the performer has ever been through the situations that might deserve such an anthemic response. For an easy comparison, let's take two songs from Christina Aguilera, an artist I don't even like: 'Beautiful' and 'Fighter'. Now you can argue that after Mean Girls you can't take 'Beautiful' seriously anymore, but there was a populist fervour to the song that's hard to fake, especially in comparison with far weaker entries like 'Firework' by Katy Perry. And hell, 'Fighter' is just awesome, half because it actually anchored itself in rock guitar and half because Christina sells it with a raw explosive energy that feels believable. Place a song like Rachel Platten's gutless and completely generic 'Fight Song' against it, and you realize a.) what real vocal charisma and power sounds like and b.) wow, Christina really has mismanaged her career over the past decade.

So let's talk about Christina Aguilera's spiritual successor: Demi Lovato, another former Disney starlet with a huge voice that unfortunately makes every song sound like hard work. Now it's taken me a long time to come around on Demi Lovato, because while I liked her 2013 album DEMI for the smarter-than-expected content and some solid hooks, there were way too many structural problems in the rushed composition, by-the-numbers production, and underwritten lyrics to really be excused. But DEMI has always felt like a transitional record to me, a stepping stone to when she's step out as the vibrant, fully-formed pop star that she is. And with the lead-off singles for Confident, I got the impression that Demi had not only grown as a more expressive vocalist, but had picked up the explosive, pop rock-edged instrumentation that's a natural fit for her vocal tone - and since a new Pink or Ke$ha album don't seem likely for the near future, I prayed we'd get something of quality to fill that female-driven pop rock slot that's been vacant on the Hot 100 for too long. Did Confident deliver?

To be completely honest, no, not quite. And you know, it's not always immediately clear why, whether it's Demi throwing everything she's got into her vocals for better or worse or the instrumentation and lyrics that don't nearly have as much unique personality as you'd hope, but this record kind of fell a bit flat for me. I'm not saying Confident is a bad record, but considering how strong her lead-off singles were, to find a record that has more interchangeable filler than it should really felt like a letdown. Again, not bad, but a fair bit away from great.

So how does all of that happen? Well, the most important place to start is the instrumentation and production, because if you went in expecting that Demi Lovato was going towards more aggressive pop rock like her first two singles... well, prepare yourself for disappointment. For the most part, we get plenty of tinkling pianos touched by reverb and sweeping effects, an abundance of stuttering trap-inspired beats - especially when we get the songs with rap verses - pitch-shifted vocals, and an overwhelming sense that this record would be so much better if any of the melodies had the same groove and swell as Demi's voice. There's a surprisingly brittle lack of flow to a lot of this production - which immediately strikes me as a misstep when you have such a huge, raw presence like Demi - and sure, she's one of the few pop vocalists who can ride those huge walls of choppy, buzzing synth and not get submerged, but it doesn't flatter her and it does nothing for the melodies on these songs either. At best you get tracks like 'Kingdom Come', which has a melodic progression that reminded me a little of 'Mad World' by Tears For Fears before that monstrous chorus, or 'Lionheart' with the bells and rounded, liquid guitar notes, but at worst you get songs like the cluttered mess of 'Wildfire' or the choppiness of 'Old Ways' - neither song, I should add, that Demi actually wrote. It's one of the reasons why the piano ballads that touch more on gospel like 'You' and 'Father' and baroque pop are the most memorable tracks on this album... but again, they can barely touch the brassy stomp of the title track complete with Muse-esque guitar groove on the bridge, or the sweeping roar of the gnarled guitars on 'Cool For The Summer'. And frankly, considering how much raw, explosive personality that these songs bring to the table, I'm stunned that Demi and her writers didn't go more in this direction, especially considering it would have defined a more unique sound that could have differentiated her from Taylor Swift or Lorde or especially her most immediate rival Selena Gomez.

Of course, the big factor that immediately differentiates her is her vocal presence. I've already made the Christina Aguilera comparison before, but this record does have songs where Demi's showing off a softer, more emotive range that does show versatility to balance things out, including vocal flourishes on 'Wildfire' or 'Stone Cold' that show more than a little influence of Lana Del Rey or conversely Taylor Swift's reinterpretation of Lana on 'Wildest Dreams'. Believe it or not, I think my biggest issues with Demi's delivery can come with some of her belting - I'm not sure it's her vocal technique, but I find myself wishing it was more assured and soulful and had a bit more emotive control, especially on the ballads instead of as shouty and shrill as it can come across. Take the outro of 'Stone Cold' - a pretty damn good song, but for as cold as this situation is supposed to leave Demi feeling, her delivery doesn't match it. It really makes her come across as younger and less experienced than even her writing reflects, and honestly a lot less subtle - talented and powerful but not quite as refined.

Now this ties into the writing, arguably where I have the least to say because Demi Lovato doesn't really vary her formula much. She's got her self-esteem anthems that have some nice nuggets of nuance, a selection of more straightforward love songs that honestly kind of run together in terms of their writing, and a few troubled relationship songs - although you could definitely argue that 'Waitin' For You' was targeted at a former friend rather than a former lover. And what I've tended to like about Demi's writing is that it can have some decent nuance in the details - the complicated emotions that come with wanting to be happy for an ex that moved on on 'Stone Cold', the even more complicated situation of her late father on the titular track where he divorced her mother and suffered from mental illness, leaving Demi with justifiably mixed feelings. It's one of the reasons that 'For You' really hit me the wrong way, describing an absolutely toxic relationship that Demi stays in anyway - and with a force of dominant personality like hers, it makes absolutely no sense until you realize she didn't write that either. But the song that's got everyone talking is 'Cool For The Summer', the one with the implied lesbian hookup that has had many people questioning whether Demi Lovato is bisexual or just curious. For me, the song has so much over-the-top ridiculous melodrama that I'm inclined to give it a pass for sheer bombast like I did with 'Can't Remember To Forget You' by Shakira and Rihanna, but I do see where some are making 'I Kissed A Girl' comparisons, even though with Demi it sounds a lot more believable. And on the topic of Katy Perry and tastelessness, let's talk our two guest rappers, the first being Iggy Azalea who despite some pretty decent connecting lyrics indulges in a pretty obnoxious flow that definitely doesn't flatter her. That said, I think Sirah's verse on 'Waitin' For You' was worse, because at least Iggy could stay on rhythm with the beat, something Sirah struggled to manage.

Look, at the end of the day I wanted to come in and praise this record to the high heavens, but the sad fact is that after the singles that open this album, there's a distinct drop-off in quality that leads to a succession of songs that aren't bad, but aren't exactly interesting either. I'm still convinced that Demi Lovato could deliver a quality record, but that would require she kept a firm hand on writing and defined a more unique sound for herself. Hate to say, but a few great songs can't save an album on their own, so for me it's a very strong 6/10 - but I am going to recommend this. No, it's not on the same level as Carly Rae Jepsen or Marina & The Diamonds when it comes to pure pop, but I'm seeing good signs ahead for Demi Lovato - she's only getting better.

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