Demi Lovato performs on The Tonight Show on Aug. 18, 2022
Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images
August 19, 2022 6:49 PM EDT

The public has watched Demi Lovato undergo many different reinventions over the course of her career. She started out as a Disney darling on Sonny With a Chance and a few Disney Channel Original Movies like Camp Rock and Princess Protection Program. In 2008, she released her debut album, Don’t Forget—a pop-rock record that featured her powerhouse vocals on songs like “La La Land” and “Trainwreck” as well as the title track. Here We Go Again in 2009 was another rock-forward album released with Hollywood Records (still a part of the Disney machine).

In 2010, Lovato stepped away from the public eye, and the entirety of her career shifted. She went from making pop-rock songs about boys and heartbreak to talking openly about her mental health struggles, her eating disorder, and dealing with substance abuse in both interviews and song lyrics. She became a beacon of hope for young people facing similar challenges, and when she returned with her next string of albums over the next decade, she conveyed this message through different musical genres ranging from R&B to dance-pop to hip hop.

Lovato assured fans that after having been open about these struggles, she’s unbroken and confident. She sought love after two very public failed relationships and attempted to push through the noise that came along with openly battling drug abuse—to the point where she came close to death. Demi has been very open about how her time at Disney was traumatizing in many ways, feeling like the product of a machine that chewed her up, spit her out, then turned its back on her. So it makes sense that if the pop-punk sound that was her signature at that time triggers memories of darker days, she would shy away from returning to that sound.

But on her eighth studio album, Holy Fvck!, released on Aug. 19, she leans into that darkness and embraces the genre that launched her music career. And the album makes it clear that pop-punk is the best vehicle for Lovato: It allows her to drive home the idea that she doesn’t take herself too seriously while also making truly poignant music.

Here are our takeaways from this latest release.

Demi returns to her pop-rock roots but digs even deeper

Lovato’s last project, 2021’s Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over, had some highlights—like the emotional ballad “Anyone,” a pleading cry for help—but the album itself wasn’t enjoyable sonically. She struggled to marry the elements of her music that work the best—impactful lyrics, kick-ass vocals, and most importantly: that lack of self-seriousness.

On her comeback single, “SKIN OF MY TEETH,” released in June, she kicked down the metaphorical door between herself and her audience with the opening lyrics: “Demi leaves rehab again/ when is this sh-t gonna end?/ Sounds like a voice in my head/ I can’t believe I’m not dead.” She’s poking at the fact that she’s been in and out of rehab for the past couple of years, and referring to herself in the third person calls to mind the breathless tabloid coverage of her personal challenges.

The album takes listeners through her emotions, which come off at first as rage but turn out to be more layered and even melancholy. We hear Lovato talking about death more openly as she grapples with survivor’s guilt after having almost died from a drug relapse in 2018 on “DEAD FRIENDS,” where she sings, “I danced with the devil/ I made it through hell, and I don’t know why/ How am I different? I did, and they didn’t, and it doesn’t feel right.”

In previous albums, Lovato had a knack for getting close to the microphone and softly singing, almost as though she were trying not to scare people away with her forceful voice. Not so on this album: She’s fully embraced the emo, pop-punk aesthetic, yelling from the mountain tops, using every ounce of energy to get rowdy and show off her exuberance.

She opens up pretty overtly about painful past relationships

The best song on the album, no contest, is “29”—lyrically, vocally, in every regard. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what this album set out to do: make a point no matter who Lovato pissed off in the process. Although it’s not confirmed to be about her relationship with former That ’70s Show actor Wilmer Valderrama, the details highly suggest this, with Lovato, now 29, singing about her 12-year-age gap with a former partner.

“Just five years a bleeder/ Student and a teacher/ Far from innocent/ What the f-ck’s consent?/ Numbers told you not to/ But that didn’t stop you,” she sings in the first verse. In the second verse, she digs the knife in deeper: “I see you’re quite the collector/ Yeah you’re 12 years her elder/ Maybe now it doesn’t matter/ But I know f-cking better.” Though she has not confirmed nor denied it, the lyrics seem to reference her ex’s current relationship with his fiancé, model Amanda Pacheco, who is 12 years his junior.

The songs are lyrically serious but often sonically light

On 2017’s Tell Me You Love Me, Lovato tried her hand at being more open about her sexuality with tracks like “Concentrate” and “Sexy Dirty Love,” but the lyrics were surface-level at best. They didn’t reach into her desires, wants, and needs as a sexual being, nor did the songs on that album explore the conflicting emotions that arise from her Christian upbringing.

Lovato explores these themes more deeply in the tongue-in-cheek “COME TOGETHER.” “Got me closer to the edge than ever/ We both want it, but we don’t surrender/ And we could make it last forever/ But paradise is even better whеn we come togethеr,” she sings. These lyrics can be interpreted as a love song about coming together in a relationship, but there is a rather clear double entendre about reaching a climax together sexually. She traverses through uncharted waters as she navigates masturbation on “HEAVEN.” In a “Genius”-verified annotation, she writes, “Growing up, I was often shamed by my religion for exploring, and I just wanted to write a song about it because I was in this place where I was angry.”

But Lovato didn’t forget to have some fun, on songs like “BONES,” where she describes the feeling of wanting to jump someone’s bones, backed by playful guitar licks. While the bulk of the album contains hardcore production, in-your-face guitars and drums, Lovato makes sure to maintain just enough levity to keep it from getting too weighed down.

Her voice shines even when her lyrics are lacking

Lovato’s voice has stood out above most of her peers since she was a teenager on Disney. She can belt, she can hit high notes, all while laying bare her raw emotions, which do some work to smooth over even the weakest of lyrics. On Holy Fvck, there are a few duds that don’t pack the emotional punch of others, but Lovato’s performance saves those songs from being entirely skippable. Her vocals elevate the two closing tracks, “FEED” and “4 EVER 4 ME,” which otherwise fall flat. The same can be said for “CITY OF ANGELS,” a love letter to Los Angeles that is dry in its lyrical content, but Lovato’s high note in the last chorus of the song is stunning.

Creating a body of work takes time, but Lovato’s work is strengthened by the fearlessness with which she channels her struggles into her songs and uses the creation process as a way of coping. It’s refreshing to see her tackle her demons to the ground with a smile on her face, all the while paying homage to where she came from—even if it stings.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com.

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