Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, John Gonzalez and Lindsay Haddox chat about Demi Lovato's new album, Confident.
Carolyn Menyes: During her opening song on Confident, fittingly titled "Confident," Demi Lovato (essentially) belts out at her listeners that "You've had me underrated." And while the former Disney star has always been pretty accurately rated as a girl with a massive voice and passions to match, she's never really broken out of the shell of "the girl with the sad ballads."
For her new album, Lovato is coming at us with a weight loss and newly found sense of confidence and sexuality. (Get the album title, guys?!). In line with Miley Cyrus' Bangerz and last week's Revival from Selena Gomez, this is Lovato's first "adult" album -- I mean, it was led by a single about a lesbian affair. So, how did she execute it? At the end of the day, I still call it uneven.
Lindsay Haddox: Demi Lovato has never shied away from the fact that she is a powerhouse singer, and she definitely delivered what we knew she could with her newest album. Confident may not be as upbeat as her competitors Gomez's Revival or Cyrus's Bangerz, but she does hold her own on Confident. With songs like "Father" or "For You" that are deeper, she seems to have continued her so-called sad ballads streak, but you sing about what you know and she created quite the powerhouse album.
I would say compared to her last album, Demi, this one is a lot different, less single hits, more of what she wanted but this album brings me back to her first out of rehab album, Unbroken. I say that because although that album was a lot about her struggles she still had songs like "Who's That Boy" and "Up All Night" which seemed to have some hip-hop influence on the beats thanks to Missy Elliott and Timbaland. It feels that to break out of her "Disney girl" mold and create an adult album she held onto her influences from a previous album and used it more throughout this one. I don't see this as a bad thing, because I feel that this is the type of music she was meant to make all along. How do you all think this album compares to her previous ones? Did she break the mold she wanted to or no?
John Gonzalez: I find it funny that this is being considered her first "adult" album because I feel like a lot of her earlier material was more mature. After "Skyscraper," it seems like Demi and her team have been more focused on cranking out radio-friendly material anything else. The only problem is they always feel a year or two behind the ball. Confident feels dated from the moment it starts and never seems to take me anywhere beyond 2013.
While Demi is delivering some killer vocals, she often sounds out of place and sometimes even out of character. At times, it even seems like she was making attempts to channel other vocalist like how she drags her voice on the verses of "Old Ways" -- very Lorde-esque. "Stone Cold" is an easy standout, her voice went to new places which was a great reminder of what made her so special way back around her Camp Rock debut. "Kingdom Come" is an obvious offspring of "Dark Horse" and "Black Widow," which is why it's not surprising to hear that Iggy wrote her verse without hearing the song first. It's probably a left over verse from her "Black Widow" sessions. Sirah redeemed the rap feature and made a nice impression on the otherwise forgettable "Waitin' For You," and "Wildfire" barely scratches the surface of what I would have expected from a Demi Lovato/Ryan Tedder collaboration. I'm unimpressed guys. Ryan?
Ryan Middleton: Yeah she is clearly brimming with confidence with that new body of hers, having just signed a model contract, but when it comes to music there is still plenty to work on. The album started like a radio-driven hit machine and if she was going to continue that way I would have been totally fine, but then it twisted and turned through two pretty bad (who on earth let Iggy in the room) rap collabs and then some forgettable ballads. "Father" redeems her slower selections with its incredibly personal and powerful message. She has a powerful voice that made me at times turn down the volume with how loud things got, but she does not shy away from the mic.
CM: First off, I love that you guys felt like Lovato was putting on for this album. She's Katy Perry on "Cool for the Summer," Lorde on "Old Ways" and very Amy Winehouse on deluxe version closer "Mr. Hughes." Lovato is trying to prove who she is as an adult but she's not really nailing her sexy image yet. And that's what we mean by adult... not "Skyscraper" or whatever, we're talking s-e-x. Lovato has always done better when she caters to her younger audience, think "Really Don't Care" or "Give Your Heart a Break."
So, we're really split here on whether or not this album is a single-driven LP or a more complete project. Me? I think I sit on Lovato and co. wanting a batch of singles but failing to deliver or make this cohesive, so it kind of fails on both fronts. I'm insistent that her singles thus far are great. "Confident" is a blast of energy and a solid thesis statement for Lovato 2015, "Cool for the Summer" is a saucy good time and Lovato can sing the crap out of "Stone Cold." It's stunning. As for the other cuts on this album... They're OK.
But that's not even to say that this album's sole purpose was to churn out singles, because three bangers does not make a hitmaker. Look toward Katy Perry's Teenage Dream for that blueprint. Five No. 1 singles and a slew of other successful cuts. But do you remember "Hummingbird Heartbeat" or "Circle the Drain?" DIDN'T THINK SO.
Do you even see any other single material here? Like, realistically, what can get played on pop radio in 2015?
LH: I completely agree with Carolyn, and great comparison to Teenage Dream, because really if you weren't an actual fan of that album then you wouldn't know the other songs. I do think they will try to push "Old Ways" as a single, but other than that I do not see much else ever being a hit on the radio.
Trying to get an understanding of what is trying to be done with this album can be hard, because although Lovato's first two songs are quite sexual, a lot of the album is not at the same pace. Instead, she seems to be dealing with relationship issues throughout the album like in the song "For You" with starting lyrics "Reasons why you ran / Don't make you a good man."
I think that Lovato wants to be seen as more than just a motivational singer (that's the best way I can describe her) but kind of fails. That does not make this a bad album, but I think she is just better at what she has been doing and should stick to it. She simply failed at the whole sex thing with this album and ended up giving us a ton of powerhouse songs.
JG: I don’t see any outright singles here. The Iggy Azalea feature makes me think they might put out “Kingdom Come,” but anyone with a brain knows that a horrible idea. The evolution has worked more visually than it has with the music. Both the videos and performances have succeeded in introducing a sexier, edgier Demi. They were rocky at first but she looked great on SNL over the weekend and handled the “Cool For The Summer/Confident” mashup pretty well. She’s confessed she hoping “Stone Cold” will score her a Grammy, so expect to see and hear a lot of that in the coming weeks.
Truthfully the best thing to come from Demi this week is her Fall Out Boy collaboration “Irresistible." She’s a rock chick at heart and should probably be looking to build her brand more in the vein of P!nk and Avril Lavigne than Katy and Rihanna. She’s a big singer with a lot of grit in her voice, so even at its most polished her vocals always feel out of place like they need more space. Even “Stone Cold” comes off a little caged at times.
RM: I agree with you on that point, John, that her vocals can sound crowded out at times. With all of the bombastic production echoing around her with the occasional white noise riding underneath, she can sometimes play second-fiddle to her production, which is NOT what you want on a pop star album. It is surprising that there are so few hits on this album with the talented writers and producers that Sweden assembled for this LP, but it shouldn't be too shocking that Max Martin's steadying hand and hit-making ear were on "Confident" and "Cool For The Summer." Though as Benny Blanco once said, if you see guys with lesser known names next to the big guys, those smaller guys most likely did all the work.
I think the next single should be "Old Ways" as it has potential to get radio play. Anyone at Hollywood / Island who pushes for the Iggy collab should just hang it up now, but we all know these things happen. Where does this leave her for future projects? Does she have to go for more hits, or try a "real album" the next time around?
CM: I don't think we have to worry about "Kingdom Come" as a single. First off, Iggy Azalea tweeted that it would just stick as an album track. Also, if anyone is paying any attention, they'll know Azalea is like career poison right now. Spin called "Kingdom Come" the worst rap verse of 2015, and they're not wrong, to be honest.
And as much as Lovato may want to get away from that "motivational" space (as you said Lindsay), she keeps going back. Look no further than a song LITERALLY called "Lionheart." Girl just cannot help her preachy self.
Honestly, as a sort of career re-opening, a former teen idol NEEDS to really establish who she is, and I'm just not getting that from Confident. First off, she's still too focused on the past (with songs like "Old Ways," "Father," "Cool for the Summer" and even "Stone Cold" rehashing years-old issues). Secondly, I think there's something still holding Lovato back from being a full sexy pop star or even a full adult. It's probably her team, if we're being real, but that's an issue. Who is Demi Lovato in 2015? I'm not so sure I know. And that's why Confident inherently fails despite the occasional bop.
LH: I think Demi wants to be cookie cutter pop but isn't. When she first came out with "Get Back" a while ago, she never said she wanted to be a pop star. Lovato's pre-rehab self would have loved to be the next P!nk but I think a lot of her image now is due to what her management thinks is best after everything she went through.
Lovato seems to keep saying she wants to rebuild herself musically after each album she puts out, but they all seem to sound similar. If Lovato wanted such a career turnaround, then she really should have done it after she was in rehab, and it isn't that it is too late for one now, but I just don't see her being anyone else than who she has been.
It sucks, but Lovato always seems to be comparing herself to ther artists when she is a great one herself. Instead of trying to one up herself or others on her albums she needs to embrace what she does best and stick to it because she is not bad at what she does and I think her music would then sound more put together.
JG: Well, it’s safe to say this won’t be her last opportunity at a reinvention. Demi’s life post Unbroken has seen her evolve into a full 360 brand. This project seems to be more of a spring broad for an image conversion than a musical one, so fittingly the material is catered more toward radio friendly headline grabbing subject matter (i.e. kissing girls, her estranged father, etc.) than strong album defining content. Confident will be remembered more for being the album she promoted that time she posed naked than anything else.
While the music has suffered I’m sure the endorsements she racking up right now are lovely. Moving forward, I do hope to see her push her sound back towards its pop-rock roots where her voice can roam more freely and her songs can have a bit more substance. Lovato is a true vocal gem and a star with a real story that unfortunately gotten lost in the hype and hoopla. This is an album that could have used Jack Antonoff or anyone involved in Taylor Swift’s 1989, except Ryan Tedder because he dropped the ball here too.
RM: I think she has remade her image into what she is wants it to be, setting up a pop career going forward. With spread showing plenty of skin that sexy, stadium touring pop star look is there, now she just needs the music. This album was a chance to really make a statement, but it kind of fell flat as she couldn't get out of her own way.
It is one thing to experiment with multiple styles and sounds within an album -- the LP format affords you that opportunity, but thematically she just couldn't leave the past behind and still feels in transition as an artist. At album five this is a little disappointing, though she is still only 23 and can't rent a car without the extra fee in all 50 states.
CM: Demi Lovato is a pop star on the road to finding out who she really is. And with the arrival of Confident, she wanted us to believe -- and probably believed herself -- that she had done that. But, the resulting album proves that maybe she hasn't. Confident opens up strong and has big pop songs and ballads that can be suitable singles, but the rest of the album reflects too much on the past. Demi Lovato isn't quite yet the adult singer she wants to be, but like you said Ryan, she has time to get there.
LH: Although this may not have been the mature, sexy album Lovato was aiming to put out, it definitely isn't terrible. I think she has a lot of of talent and it shines through on her newest album, however she just needs to figure out how to use her talent so she can put a great album out that everyone knows she is capable of. Lovato seems to have a bright future ahead of her and I am interested in seeing how she will evolve.
JG: Confident is easily my least favorite “rebranding album” of any Disney alum. Demi Lovato is a powerhouse and an inspiration to all thanks to her remarkable journey but no sign of that or anything of substance can be found on this album. It’s not only out of touch with fans, but with the artist herself. If it wasn’t for the name I couldn’t tell you what Demi felt coming into this project. Confident in her voice? Yes. Confident in her body? Even bigger yes. But was she confident in this material? Well clearly she was, but why? At 15 songs this album failed to paint a fitting picture (or even draw a stick figure) of the talented young woman behind it.
RM: Demi has made the visual and brand turn around, now it is time for the music. She has grown into the mature woman she wants her music to be, but somehow failed to do so, leaning on her strengths of past albums. Confident has its moments, but does not deliver on all fronts as it was intended. Let's see how she goes for round six in two years.