The roads taken by Demi Lovato have never been a simple stroll. Since the uncomplicated teen-pop of her 2008 debut, “Don’t Forget,” as she’s grown older her music morphed into a palate of smoky soul and glossy R&B, driven by her powerfully emotive voice and increasingly contentious lyrics inspired by the complications of her psyche, the mire of mental health, a messed-up childhood and the algebra of need that is addiction. Lovato’s had her bruises, and it always pretty much shows in her music.
In January she announced on Instagram that she’d conducted a “funeral” for her pop and R&B sides, which probably did not come as a shock to anyone who knows how Lovato is usually ready with turn-on-a-dime life and career moves based on mood, emotion and self-discovery. That she actually went ahead and amped up the crunchy guitars and industrialized rhythms, added a patina of crustiness to her usually clarion-clear vocals and went for the emo-rocking entirety of “Holy Fvck” actually does manage to surprise a bit: How many pop artists announce they’re going to take that severe a turn and then actually do it?
There is genuine ire and outrage to be found throughout “Holy Fvck,” including a title that may keep the physical versions out of some family-friendly stores, no matter what font subterfuge she uses. (Wal-Mart has it available via mail only.) There’s enough spikiness in its overall production and songwriting (mainly by Lovato, Warren “Oak” Felder, Alex Niceforo and Keith “Ten4” Sorrells) to shred your fishnets. But more than anything, it’s the realities of a hard row to hoe that makes this record rough and rude – even if it’s closer to melodic Avril Lavigne punk-pop with a pile-driving Travis Barker than, say, the more deeply dark hues of and Trent Reznor.
“Trying to master the art of detaching,” as she claims on “Substance,” Lovato’s cocky but highly melodious vocals are buoyed by rabid, rapid-firing guitars, sprite, puckish rhythms and a killer chorus. That same vibe — a blink-and-you-miss-its Blink 182 punch — easily applies to “Skin of My Teeth,” “Come Together” and the high-pitched, tartly sexualized “City of Angels.”
The carnival-music-inspired “Freak” gets doses of dour distortion from a loud, thumbed bass line and some frantic screamo vocals from Demi and her guest, Yungblud. Its melody and drive are both reminiscent of Stone Temple Pilots’ glam-grunge classic, “Vasoline.” And that’s a great thing. Even stealing the stuttering industrial pulse of Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” for her own “Heaven” — Jesus references and all — presents a portrait of a young artist with a hardened heart, dampened religiosity and un-merry music to match the life that preceded “Holy Fck.” I don’t know if I truly buy that Lovato is absolute “truth and darkness… like the serpent in the garden,” as she sings on the sludgy stutter of the title track, but you have to love her gall in trying to be both angel and devil.
God. Death. Drugs. Doom. No matter how far down she goes or existential she gets on “Holy Fvck,” if you’ve been paying attention to Lovato’s last few records (in particular, the post-rehab “Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over,” just 16 months ago), Lovato makes it all sound palatable and even pop-worthy, despite that recent burial notice. Which is nice. Lovato’s level of crusty commitment is always equitable to her new album’s tough overall tenor, even if she hasn’t forsaken her pop instincts altogether after all.
Not every track on “Holy Fvck” is grungy or even gruff. Save for her sneery, sing-song vocal and its willowing guitars, the slow “29” — which has been widely perceived already as an angry dig at the age gap between her and her older one-time boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama — and the slower , more harmonious “Wasted” could both almost be dazzling children’s lullabies. For any fan of Lovato’s vocal prowess, you know she’s genuinely hitting the soaring high notes of “Wasted.” The acoustic guitar-strummed “4 Ever 4 Me” rises and cascades like a sun-dappled waterfall.
The only thing irksome about Lovato’s big-sounding brand of bugged-out, mean power-pop is that she really wants you to know she’s gone bad, and is really mad about the whole process. From the crucifix and bondage of the album’s cover art to its omnipresent burnt-Kohl vibe to her repeated self-referencing of being “ungodly but heaven-sent,” this even darker Demi is determined not to let anyone forget for a moment that she’s been changed by her life’s complicated circumstances, and that going punk is her best refuge. A little subtlety could have gone a long way towards making her prickly points stand out.
Still, “Holy Fvck” is a good surprise and an even better record — maybe the best we’ve heard from Lovato to date.