Monday, October 2, 2017

album review: 'tell me you love me' by demi lovato

Not gonna lie, I had a bad feeling going into this record. And given how much I've been rooting for Demi Lovato over the past few years, this was not a feeling I wanted to have - there had been promise on both DEMI and Confident, and as you all probably know 'Cool For The Summer' was my favourite hit song of 2015! I had every hope that Demi Lovato could rise and take on the female pop rock mantle in the mainstream that had been left vacant for so long - she had the pipes, she had the attitude, she was taking more of an active cowriting role...

But the more I started hearing tracks in the build-up to Tell Me You Love Me - a bad album title and about the last thing I would want or expect to hear from Demi Lovato - the more I was worried. As much as you might not like Max Martin, he did do a significant amount behind the scenes on her better singles and likely contributed to the rock elements, and the problem I had with Confident is that instead of tilting towards that in production and delivery, she relied on flimsy, desaturated modern pop tropes that didn't flatter her, often tilting towards R&B or soul in a way that didn't fit with her voice and delivery all that well. And with the lead-off singles for Tell Me You Love Me it looked like more steps in that direction, which didn't bode well for this record, especially when you notice her token rap collaboration is with Lil Wayne on a DJ Mustard beat. But the other reviews were suggesting this is the point where Demi Lovato hit her stride, so despite all the evidence to the contrary in the lead-off singles, I checked this out - what did I find?

Well, pretty much exactly what I was dreading. Folks, if you were hoping that Demi Lovato was going to bring any sort of rock edge... you know what, let me take that off the table entirely or it's going to overshadow the whole review; if you were hoping that she'd deliver at least a consistent pop record that leaned into R&B and soul, you're going to be painfully disappointed. Let's not mince words, Demi Lovato's Tell Me You Love Me is a mess, the sort of awkward artistic pivot that doesn't just feel like the wrong idea from the start, but also fumbles the execution so thoroughly I'm a little astounded this got greenlit at all! Yes, there are a few redeeming moments that save this from being worse, but it's a failure across the board, and all the more evidence that she needs a course correction fast, the sort of dramatic shift that involves firing of dozens of producers and cowriters to go back to basics.

And let me stress I don't think this is entirely Demi Lovato's fault - pop stars like her are often managed within an inch of their lives, and again, she has pipes and personality, songs like 'You Don't Do It For Me Anymore' and 'Ruin The Friendship' show she can handle both diva belting and sultry intensity, even if there's nothing here that has the comfortable firepower of her last record. But a big part of that is a shift in sound - this is a record that's expected to play towards R&B and soul and gospel and for as much as Demi's trying to fit that cadence, it's not natural and it shows. Granted, her producers are not helping here, because there is no song-to-song consistency surrounding her vocal pickup and mixing. 'Sorry Not Sorry', 'Games' and to a lesser extent 'Daddy Issues' place her belting midway back and gives her none of the support she really needs, leading to vocals that feel thinned out and shrill, and yet for some reason on 'Concentrate' they felt the need to tack on pitch correction opposite one of the more organic instrumentals on the entire record! Hell, even on songs like 'Only Forever' that actually give her a big enough mix to leverage they tack on pitch-shifted vocals to the prechorus! Hell, say what you will about DJ Mustard, he at least leaves the blatant autotune for Lil Wayne - and no, he doesn't need it either, but at least DJ Mustard knows what he's doing here.

But that takes us to the production, and I don't even know where to start with this. I've already talked about the wild shifts in fidelity from track to track, but that's not even getting into colorless and thin so much of this album feels, starting with the one-two punch of the gospel sample on 'Sorry Not Sorry' and horn pickups so flat on the title track you could swear they came from a bad synthesizer! Granted, the larger issue on both songs is that any melodic groove is utterly neutered in favor of blocky, textureless drum machines, which does nothing to support any real momentum or swagger. I've seen some critics try to draw comparisons to Justin Timberlake's Futuresex/Lovesounds, which I might actually buy if you remove any tightness or the fact that it took nearly twenty producers to try and fail what Timbaland did a decade ago, but the larger problem is that Demi Lovato is not nearly the same type of singer as Justin Timberlake, and even when she plays for sultry she's stuck opposite beats or tones that just don't flatter her. 'Sexy Dirty Love' is one of the better cases with the wiry drum programming and muted synth, but that tiny tap on the prechorus against the gurgle of the synths doesn't exactly make the song feel sexy or dirty, which somehow gets even worse opposite the flattened bass and cheap staccato farts of synths of 'Daddy Issues'! At least on songs like 'You Don't Do It For Me Anymore' and 'Ruin The Friendship' there's some texture and organic groove - especially with the trumpet on the latter song - and 'Cry Baby' is trying for noir theatricality and could conceivably stick the landing, but then you get bassy R&B tunes like 'Only Forever' where the lo-fi piano pickup sounds like it's going to die at any second, or how the choppy guitar work on 'Concentrate' and 'Hitchhiker' don't match at all with the smoother vocal multitracking! Now at least they have groove, but again, in terms of actual melody that sticks in your mind, there's precious little here!

But fine, what about lyrics? Well this is arguably where I feel this album might disappoint me the most, and it has to do with the larger framing of the record. Before this, the core of Demi's appeal was that her strength and firepower was anchored in vulnerability, but at the end of the day there was a core of strength, and exploring the cracks around it was where we got compelling drama - it's a similar approach to artists like Pink or Miranda Lambert, and it tends to work. So why in the Nine Hells do we have a title track where we're getting Demi Lovato pleading for love with lyrics like 'You ain't nobody till you got somebody' that not only feels desperate and overwrought but completely at odds with her persona? Or 'Daddy Issues', which has her clearly being strung on by a guy who treats her badly which she then justifies by saying she should forget her therapy because she's got daddy issues - even if it might be true, what woman would ever want to admit it or use it as hollow justification? And it's not helped by a tendency to play to hyperbole - 'Only Forever' shows her desperately wanting this guy to commit and she's only giving him one more chance, but if her timeline is forever there's no drama or stakes to this guy ever giving her an answer! At least the toxic relationship on 'Lonely' is mutual and both her and Lil Wayne show some responsibility for the miserable situation, but it doesn't precisely redeem the haughtiness of 'Sorry Not Sorry' or the bratty mixed signals of 'Games'. And even the love songs feel fumbled here: I get the intention behind 'Ruin The Friendship', but if you're looking for something real in this hookup, why frame it like that? And I can't be the only one who sees some unsettling implications behind 'Concentrate', where she's drunk on Merlot and he's pushy in the hookup with the major implication that she can't pull her thoughts together or concentrate, or ib 'Hitchhiker' where again Demi is describing herself as being the hitchhiking passenger in a relationship as someone else drives? I'll at least give points to 'You Don't Do It For Me Anymore', which has the double meaning of hitting both an ex and previous addictions, but it's one of the rare examples of anything that coded on this record - this is a uncharacteristically blunt record in its poetry, and that doesn't exactly make these songs sexier!

But when you circle back to the root of the problem, it's remarkably straightforward: this is not production or songwriting that fits Demi Lovato's strengths as a performer. She's a firebrand that tempered her writing in angst but came out stronger - which was always why she was a great fit for pop rock - and watching her drop into a more submissive and desperate role doesn't just feel like the worst possible thematic shift, it's poorly executed and awkward. It might work for Selena Gomez's delicate coos, but not for Demi Lovato, and if anything it's most reminiscent of how a bunch of pop divas tried and mostly failed to pivot to R&B in the early 2000s. It's a step backwards in nearly every way, and when you factor in slapdash production and the fact that Demi Lovato remains a potent vocal presence, it's a tremendous disappointment. 4/10, no recommendation, and Demi, if you happen to be listening? Go track down Pete Wentz and tell him and the rest of Fall Out Boy to pivot back to pop rock - you two worked great together on 'Irresistible', and right now given their recent singles, you need each other. Because this... it's not working.

No comments:

Post a Comment