Friday, October 16, 2015

Confident | Demi Lovato

"Well, you've had me underrated," Demi Lovato tells us in the title track of her fifth studio album, Confident. It's a phrase that sticks with listeners throughout the album, because we learn that she may be correct; that voice of hers had been mistakenly placed on our back-burners for a while. Her first three albums were admittedly in character of a Radio Disney-friendly star, but they failed to define her sound or highlight her voice. Her fourth studio album, 2013's Demi, finally put her on some production that offered her voice some competition: songs like "Heart Attack" and "Neon Lights" let her belt over soundscapes that actually stood a chance on Top 40 radio.

Now, Lovato wants to concrete her spot as a prominent pop powerhouse by going denser, heavier, and harder. She has discovered the power of a Max Martin co-signature, aiming her focus towards sounds that are as expansive and as aggressive as possible. "Cool for the Summer" introduced us to the new Demi Lovato in July, with licks of an electric guitar and layers of synthesizers grinding underneath lyrics that reek of lust: "Got my mind on your body and your body on my mind / Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite." She followed up strong, releasing "Confident" as the second single. As I noted in my review of Selena Gomez's Revival, confidence is Hollywood's newest favorite shade of sexy, and this track makes that very clear. It's an attention-commanding anthem led by blaring horns and militaristic drums that finds Lovato repeatedly asking, "What's wrong with being confident?"

Dark electronic dance finds its way onto the middle portion of the album. The standout sparse EDM track "Waitin' for You" reassures her confidence: "Knuckles out / And the guard in my mouth / When you're hungry for the next round, I'll be waitin' for you." This one lets Lovato take the reins and generate most of the song's power. "Kingdom Come" finishes a trifecta started by Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" and Iggy Azalea's "Black Widow," complete with an identical deep bass and twiddling synth format. Disappointingly, Lovato's voice is masked behind a gritty filter when we need its presence the most in the build-up; the power behind "Oh, you're my kingdom come / So sit me on your throne" is completely lost in translation. On the other hand, "Old Ways" follows the same formula but puts her voice in the forefront. Lyrically, it's the final nail in the coffin for memories of her turbulent Disney days  and this obituary wasn't written with any sorrow: "I'm not in the same place that I was / And the best part about it / Is I'm the only who can do something about it."

"For You" is her best shot at recreating a sweeping Sia-esque sound without Furler herself being involved. Lovato fills every inch of the sonic space granted to her, but the song fails to garner the resonating boom that was probably meant to be created. What we do learn from the track, though, is that she wants to be the new token vocal powerhouse of Top 40 radio. And while she's not on the elusive level of Jessie J or Sia, she can easily one-up many of her contemporaries. The album's two ballads, "Stone Cold" and "Father," both cut the powerful pop backdrops from behind, leaving her voice in a vulnerable position. She delivers the former with a pinched tone, but lets loose on the gospel-leaning closer "Father." It isn't the first song she has released about her late father, who died in 2013 while the two were estranged, but it may easily be her most forgiving and raw tribute to him yet.

Lovato said that this album was to fulfill her desire for a Grammy award, yet not a single one of these track is worthy of the award. The Recording Academy doesn't even respect quality pop material anymore, let alone relatively average releases. But while it may not get her that coveted Grammy, Confident does flick listeners right in the sweet spot. It delivers that feel-good, radio-ready pop that we all wanted but were told not to expect. Pulling out all of the stops, she has amped up the sexiness ("Cool for the Summer," "Wildfire"), the boldness ("Old Ways," "Waitin' For You"), and most importantly, the confidence.

Confident is available now under Hollywood Records and Island Records. Standard and deluxe pressings are available.

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