Real Rock music, in the classic sense of the word, has almost disappeared from the mainstream charts. Yes, crossover ‘Indie Rock’ bands make the Top Ten several times a year these days, but with a very few exceptions like Kongos, these hits tend to come from the softer ‘Indie Pop’ branch of the genre. But in 2015, two albums came out that exemplified the intensity (or ‘heaviness’, as they call it in the business) that Rock music used to entail, and each managed to produce multiple hits on the Pop charts. The first was American Beauty/American Psycho by former Emo-Pop band Fall Out Boy; the second, surprisingly, came not from a Rock act at all, but from a mainstream Pop star, former Disney starlet Demi Lovato.
Lovato had always been slightly more Rock-oriented than most of her peers in the world of pure Pop, but this album’s sound was a revelation. The songs that got the most attention, obviously, were the first two singles, the achingly erotic “Cool For the Summer” and the blazing title-track, but the hate-to-love-you lament “For You” and the affirmative love declaration “Yes” rock just as hard, and I could see both of them easily being hits themselves.
When the album slows down this Rock idiom to a ballad format, it tends to sound distinctly like the work of legendary Pop-Soul singer Adele. This is most evident on the third single, “Stone Cold”, with its raw sound and rangy, anguished vocal wails, and the defiant power ballad “Lionheart”. Some people have complained about this, but Lovato does this style almost as well as Adele herself, especially on “Stone Cold”, a devastating song that could compete with Adele’s finest work any day.
Some of the album’s songs do make certain concessions to the sounds prevalent in Pop music at the time: “Kingdom Come” and “Waitin’ For You” even have “Dark Horse”-style Trap beats and Rap verses. But neither of these songs sound distantly like your typical “Dark Horse” clone; even if the Rap verses add absolutely nothing beyond informing us of how bad Iggy Azalea’s taste in television is, even these songs have an intensity and ‘heaviness’ that clearly places them far above the standard-issue Trap-Pop that was making the charts at that point. About the only track on the album that might be considered a disappointment is “Old Ways”, which starts out as intense as everything else on the album, but then fizzles out at what was supposed to be its climax.
While the most striking changes in Demi Lovato’s template for this album were in her musical sound, one still can’t discuss the album without addressing the changes it made to her image. Here, Lovato finally abandoned the wholesomeness of pure Teenybopper Pop for more risque material, but she did so without degrading herself the way most former Teen Pop stars do. Much like Beyonce and Christina Aguilera, she has managed to embrace her sexuality while maintaining her dignity, and as a result has created material more genuinely erotic than any Pop star in recent memory except perhaps Ariana Grande. The album’s raw intensity certainly has an element of powerful sexuality to it, which is most clearly seen in the lead single “Cool For the Summer” and the erotic ballad “Wildfire”, which actually sounds like an explosive orgasm.
The album’s climatic song, “Father”, is the most serious and ambitious track here, a piece of genuine singer-songwriter material where Lovato examines her complex and often painful relationship with her recently deceased father. In a slow, almost bluesy ballad that breaks into an epic outcry of emotion on the last chorus, Lovato expresses a mix of deep-seated anger, confusion, honest love and hard-earned forgiveness. Some of Lovato’s best songs, such as “Skyscraper” and “For the Love of a Daughter” had been inspired by the anger and pain her father had caused her, and, at least from the listener’s perspective, this feels like a satisfying climax to that emotional arc.
You don’t get many albums in the mainstream with this much raw power…even the more conventional Pop songs on this record rock harder than any of their peers, and the pure Rock songs are an almost unheard-of thrill in the context of today’s Pop music. This was definitely Lovato’s best album until she topped it with the even more magnificent Tell Me You Love Me, and while it didn’t prove to be as much of a game-changer in the short term as one might have hoped, one can hardly blame the album itself for the fact that no-one in the mainstream was brave enough to attempt to match its achievements. In any case, this album is a one-of-a-kind treat in today’s Pop music world, and well worth checking out beyond its three dazzling singles.