Album Review: Demi Lovato - Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over

This would have maybe been around two months ago or so, but there was a point earlier in the year when a fleeting joke on Twitter was to describe yourself as “containing multitudes.” That time, like all jokes on Twitter, has come and gone, and as I write this, the timeline has moved onto countless other things that will, certainly, not even make it through the end of the week.

It was around this time, though, that I used that expression within a conversation I was having with my best friend. I don’t remember the context, but I ended it by saying that I “contained multitudes” in a very matter of fact way, to which she only rolled her eyes at me and without missing a beat, responded by saying, “Yes, Kevin—I know all about that song1.”

The reason I even bring up this seemingly meaningless anecdote is because the expression, “I contain multitudes,” was the first thing that came to mind when I thought about trying to write about Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over, the sprawling, ambitious, complicated new album from Demi Lovato, because both the album, and the woman responsible for it, are incredibly multitudinous. 

Demi Lovato contains multitudes. 

At not even 30, she has lived more lives than many of us could even fathom. Regrettably involved in beauty pageants from a wildly young age, Lovato was cast in the television show “Barney and Friends” when she was 10; as a young teen, she landed roles in both the Disney Channel film Camp Rock as well as the series Sonny With A Chance. Thrust into the spotlight while still growing up, Lovato, since she was a teenager, has continually struggled with an eating disorder, and by the age of 19, had developed an addiction to cocaine and Xanax, sending her to rehab and making her, whether she really wanted to be or not, an advocate for mental health awareness and sobriety—the latter of which she touted, or possibly was touted for her, for just slightly over six years. 

Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over is an album that contains multitudes.

Regardless of which version of the album you listen to—buying it on CD from Target or streaming it from Spotify—the album’s running time is daunting, clocking in at well over an hour and containing upwards of over 20 tracks. Split into a “prelude,” and then the a sequence referred to as “The Art of Starting Over,” the album is an extravagant concept album or cycle of songs where Lovato, with unabashed honesty and a restless theatrically, details her relapse and near-death overdose in 2018, then the long, difficult journey back to find a place where she is at peace with who she is. 

Delayed in part due to the ongoing pandemic, as well the implication that parts were rewritten or restructured because of her whirlwind courtship with actor Max Ehrich and their tumultuous breakup in the fall of 2020, Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over was released in tandem with a four part YouTube documentary series of the same name—it chronicles the events leading up to Lovato’s 2018 nearly fatal overdose, and the difficult work she has put in to herself since then.

Even for a casual listener, or a new listener, like myself, who more or less only knew Lovato by name prior to this, you will probably be able to enjoy, or take away something from Dancing With The Devil the album without watching the documentary—and it seems unlikely that someone would go through the effort of sitting through an hour documentary without eventually listening to the record. 

But, as one might anticipate, the two projects compliment and inform one another, with the documentary going into graphic detail about the events Lovato describes within the album.

Demi Lovato, and Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over contain multitudes.


Even before I had a chance to even really wrap my head around the structure of the album, or the arranging, instrumentation, and stylistics of Dancing With The Devil, the first thing I noticed, from the moment the album begins with the somber “Anyone,” is Lovato’s voice. Words like “powerful” or “dramatic” don’t do it justice, and when she decides to really let it loose and belt something out, she really belts it, more or less overpowering whatever the music happens to be doing around her within that moment. 

“Anyone” is, it its core, was Lovato’s cry for help—a song she allegedly wrote and then recorded a few days before her overdose in the summer of 2018, it was also the first single released over a year in advance of Dancing With The Devil, arriving in January of 2020.

There are plenty of raw, humanizing moments throughout Dancing With The Devil, but “Anyone,” right from the gate, is perhaps Lovato at her most honest, raw, and fragile; even with just the skeletal instrumentation of a piano underneath her powerhouse voice, it is an audacious opening statement for the record, and the lyrical content—specifically the way she delivers it—sets the tone for what is to come.

Nobody’s listening to me,” Lovato pleas within the first half of the song, then adding, “I talk to shooting stars but they always get it wrong—I feels stupid when I pray so why am I praying anyway if nobody is listening?” Later, when the lyrics are repeated, she emphasizes the abandonment she has felt—specifically from the faith that she once seemingly held closely, bluntly saying, “Why the fuck am I praying anyway if nobody’s listening?”

From this sparse opening, the album wastes no time in shifting tonality, which is something that occurs almost between every song. One of the album’s two titular tracks, “Dancing With The Devil” burns slowly and slinks its way into its bombastic, theatrical refrain. It’s also here that Lovato carries the narrative from the personal and professional emptiness of “Anyone,” to her gradual slide away from sobriety. 

It’s just a little red wine, I’ll be fine,” Lovato assures at the beginning of the song, with a warm, soulful electric piano underneath her. “Not like I wanna do this every night.” Then, in the song’s second verse, the stakes grow more severe: “It’s just a little white line, I’ll be fine. But soon that little white line is a little glass pipe,” then reflecting on her experience with a surprising aside and dark sense of humor, “Tinfoil remedy almost got the best of me.”

In the Dancing With The Devil documentary, it is estimated that if Lovato’s former assistant and staff had not found her when they did, she might not have lived beyond another five or ten minutes. “I was dancing with the devil—I was out of control,” Lovato booms with power in the song’s refrain. “Almost made it to heaven—it was closer than you know.”

The “prelude” to the album ends with another piano accompanied track, though this time a lullaby dedicated to her younger sister Madison. It was Madison, just a child still, who Lovato was told that she’d no longer be able to see if she didn’t go into rehab for her addictions at age 19; and it was Madison who Lovato, apparently, could literally not see upon waking up in the hospital bed in July of 2020. Suffering brain damage from her overdose, Lovato temporarily lost her vision; yes, she mostly regained her eye sight, but due to the lasting effects of the brain damage on her eyes, she still struggles with blind spots and flashes, and is no longer allowed to drive. 

The unfortunate irony of Lovato really not being able to see her sister from the hospital bed is a talking point in the documentary, and is used as a bit of a heavy handed metaphor in “I.C.U.”2


Demi Lovato, and the album Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over, both contain multitudes. 

The “Art of Starting Over” portion of the record begins with a short, but dramatic introduction, spoken by Lovato, before gliding into the breezy, post-disco pop of the other titular track—less about her road to recovery following her overdose, “Art of Starting Over” is an uptempo reflection on the dissolution of her short lived relationship from 2020. “Give me a pen, I’m rewriting another ending,” she sings in the first verse. “It didn’t turn out the way that I wanted.” 

She becomes more direct in her assessment of her former fiancé in the song’s second verse: “He was the cure, I was ready to be sure…it didn’t take long to realize that the woman in me does not cry for a man who is a boy—and he does not deserve this,” while the title of the song serving as a self-aware reference to the end of her relationship, as well as her life in the wake of her relapse, overdose, and continued efforts of recovery, adding that she is “mastering the art of starting over.”

With over 15 tracks dedicated to the “Art of Starting Over,” musically and thematically, Lovato covers a lot of ground, with the album as a whole quickly pivoting one way, then another. Not every song is about her struggles with substance abuse, or the difficult end of a relationship—Lovato, very vocal about her tumultuous relationship with her body, food, and the eating disorders she suffered from beginning at an early age, takes those demons head on with a bombastic flare on “Melon Cake” (what a ‘melon cake’ is gets a greater explanation in the documentary), as well as the country tinged “The Way You Don’t Look at Me,” which is an early standout for one of the album’s finest tracks.

And maybe it’s because I spend so much time listening to sad, acoustic ballads sung by young women, but I could probably listen to an entire Demi Lovato album of songs that were in a similar fashion as “The Way You Don’t Look at Me.” The hushed nature of its structure allows her to show some restraint in her powerful voice, and lets her use it as a means to convey the real emotion behind the song, rather than just wowing the listener with how impressive her control, range, and timbre is. 

“The Way You Don’t Look at Me” is a convergence of sorts for all of the album’s thematic elements, tumbling together gently as Lovato confesses to a flaring temper and still working through her relationship with her body, and the food she eats. “I’ve lost ten pounds in two weeks ‘cause I told me I shouldn’t eat,” she begins, but the real conceit of the song is not specifically her eating disorder or her past addictions—but it’s how a romantic partner will see her because of those things. “So tell me what’s on your mind,” she pleads in the song’s second verse. “I’m not afraid of natural disasters but I’m so scared if I undress that you won’t love me after.”

As the album continues to unfold, Lovato remains dedicated to employing a sense of drama, and a sense of theatricality to the songs—the “Met Him Last Night” features additional vocals from Ariana Grande, and the synth heavy, slithering track connects thematically back to “Dancing With The Devil.” Both Lovato and Grande blend their voices together well, complimenting each other as they belt out phrases with evocative metaphors like, “I’ve seen the devil—yeah, I met him last night. One conversation, now he’s spending the night. I think I love him though I know it ain’t right.”

It’s Lovato’s use of explosive drama, though, that makes for some of the most memorable moments as Dancing With The Devil continues. 

The mid-tempo reflection from “What Other People Say” is downright powerful, with its thundering instrumentation and the way she sings the shit out of the song’s devastating refrain: “I used to call my mom every Sunday so she knew her love wasn’t far away. But now I’m all fucked up out in L.A. ‘cause I care more about what other people say.” And the ballad, “Easy,” is haunting with just how stirring and how god damn emotional it is. Featuring additional vocals from Noah Cyrus (Miley’s younger sister), Lovato grabs your attention with the imagery in the first verse—“I’ll leave through the gift shop. I’m keeping all my souvenirs—keychain and a cough drop; postcards say, ‘I wish that you were here,’” before bringing the song to a towering emotional height with the refrain: “The hardest part of leaving is to make it look so easy.”

However dark Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over might appear, there are slivers of hope, or at least optimism. “California Sober” is probably the album’s most triumphant, at least musically speaking, track, detailing Lovato’s willingness to practice sobriety on her own terms. A portion of the last part of the documentary discusses Lovato’s moderation attempt at sobriety, or “California sober,” as she calls it, which is a little controversial among the people interviewed for this segment, and certainly conversion among those who both have dealt with addiction, or work within the field of addiction treatment. 

“California sober,” as a means of sobriety, finds Lovato indulging in a drink or two, and smoking weed, but stopping there, and being confident in what her limitations are. “California Sober,” the song, is an enormous blast of pop, soaring to massive, jubilant heights, while Lovato more or less reckons with the place that she has arrived at. “Tired of being known for my sickness—it didn’t work,” she confesses in the first verse; then, in the second, “Living for perfection isn’t living.” 

The take away from the song, as well as the whole album, as well as the documentary too, is the line she sings within the refrain: “It doesn’t have to mean the growing part is over.”


Demi Lovato and Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over both contain multitudes, and it is the multitudinous nature of the project that is a strength and a weakness.

Rarely is an album by an artist who has established themselves within the world of “pop” music simply this personal and this ambitious—is it too ambitious? Is it too personal? Is releasing a record so heavily balanced on a concept (albeit a rather dark one) a career gamble?3 For a performer like Lovato, the answer is no. The only real risk in making an album like this is the personal emotional risk that comes from opening yourself up and being this open and honest about these parts of yourself. If anything, it is far from a career gamble, simply because the entire project, both the documentary series and the album, find Lovato owning up to the choices that she made, and handling them with as much grace as she can. 

There is a near audacious nature to the scope of the album that, much like Lovato’s fearlessness with how she opted to address difficult, personal demons, is incredibly commendable. As audacious and multitudinous as the project might be, the album, no matter what form you opt to consume it in, is entirely too long, and begins to buckle under its own weight. It doesn’t run out of steam by the end, but it does struggle to maintain pacing, especially as it reaches all of the various bonus tracks tucked in throughout the myriad editions available. And not every song can be as emotionally stirring or impactful, or as well executed.

There is a small part of the documentary series where Lovato begins to discuss her newfound queerness. She is remiss to “put a label on it,” but in identifying as queer, she tries to write that into “The Kind of Lover I Am,” where sing sings, “Doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man.” And it’s an okay song—not incredibly, not awful, up until the every ending, when through the usage of heavy digital distortion and warbling on her voice, Lovato, becoming very breathless and manic, blurts out a monolog that includes the line:”I don’t care if you’ve got a dick. I don’t care if you’ve got a WAP—I just wanna love, you know what I’m saying?” The entire song is written with small instances of humor included throughout, but the way this ending portion is written, and delivered, instantly put a cringe across my face.

I felt a similar cringe a few songs later with “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriends,” even with a moderately clever though rather short guest verse from ranch dressing connoisseur Saweetie; and near the album’s conclusion, I understand the sentiment behind including a cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World’—performed in the better known Gary Jules and Michael Andrews arrangement of the song from 20 years ago—it arrives as seeming a little miscast.


The “standard” edition of Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over ends just how you think it would, with a very emotional and dramatic ballad, mostly acoustic, with some ethereal undertones shimmering underneath. “Good Place,” as you might anticipate from the title, or from the themes and subject matter from the 18 tracks sequenced prior to this one, is Lovato making a final reflection and embracing acceptance and growth, regardless of the difficulties. 

It’s probably one of the album’s most cloying moments—but even with as saccharine or predictable as the song’s refrain appears, there is a truth in it, both for Lovato, and for us, as listeners, and people going through our own struggles, however big or small. And in that, there is a tiny sliver of hope. “I’m in a good place—took a while to feel this way…reconciled with okay,” she sings, really digging into her voice and range for all of the emotion. “With a whole lot of work, a whole lot of hurt, whole lot of grace, now I’m in a good place. 

Putting in the work, and being gracious as you do, both with yourself and others, is incredibly difficult, and at times it can seem absolutely impossible, but the thing that is going to linger, even after all Lovato has put on the table—through infectiously written and structured and meticulously produced pop music, and through confessional lyrics, is the very notion of reconciling with “okay.” Not good. Not Great. Just okay. And there are times, more now than ever before, that when somebody asks me, whether it is intended to be genuine or not, how I am doing, I say “I’m okay.” 

And when I say that, as a response, it usually means that I am anything but, and I use it as a way to answer a question without answering it. 

But what Lovato is describing here is saying that you are “okay” and then actually meaning it. Not good. Not Great. But just okay. And reconciling with the notion that is maybe how it is going to be for a while.

Demi Lovato contains multitudes, and I joked about containing them too but in the end maybe it’s not a joke at all. Maybe we all have a multitudinous nature to us, whether we realize it or not. Demi Lovato is a complicated, complex individual, and to an extent, the people who listen to her album are as well. Even with its ambitious heft, even with all of its flaws, and even in its reflection over a dark period of time in Lovato’s life, Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over is still an accessible pop album, but what is more important that that is how it is presented as a daring artistic statement that refuses to apologize for its honesty.

1- Surprisingly enough (to me anyway) it is a reference to a new Bob Dylan song, from the album he released just last year.

2- Just a quick aside here that last year, Phoebe Bridgers also released a song called “I.C.U.” It’s still printed that way on the tracklist of the Punisher LP, but out of sensitivity due to the early months of the pandemic, she changed it to “I See You” when it was issued as a single prior to the album’s release.

3- There was really no good place to try and sandwich this into the review, or any of the other contextual information about Demi Lovato that went into this piece, but one of the notes I had written as a thing I wanted to talk about was “the involvement of Scooter Braun,” so this is just going to end up a footnote that, like, two people might read. Scooter Braun is credited as an executive producer on Dancing With The Devil, and in 2019, inked a deal to serve as Lovato’s manager. Making an appearance in the documentary series as well, and wanting to appear affable or concerned about Lovato’s career and well-being, it is tough for me to take him seriously, and it is unfortunate that performers like Lovato or her peer Ariana Grande, have put their trust in him. Braun, and his venture capital firm, acquired Taylor Swift’s former label, Big Machine Records, in 2019, and as part of that, the master recordings to Swift’s first six studio albums. The whole ordeal is a little difficult to follow, but the condensed version that, I guess, matters is this: Swift referred to Scooter Braun as an “incessant, manipulative bully,” and that this is why she is opting to re-record her first six albums and release them through a new contract, where she owns the master recordings. It’s literally impossible for me to view Braun as a good person, with good intentions, and to believe the things he says during his screen time in the Dancing With The Devil documentary.

Dancing With The Devil—The Art of Starting Over is out now on myriad formats, via Island/UMG.