One of the year’s best pop releases.
Pop stars past their commercial prime have one of two options. They can try to get back on top by reinventing themselves, with shameless chart pleas involving tons of guests, relinquishing creative control to make albums the higher-ups think would sell well. Then there’s the Carly Rae Jepsen method: Make a really solid record that’s more likely to get big based on word of mouth. It might not chart, but maybe it’ll become a cult classic. It’s a tacit admission of defeat that tends to yield better music than the alternative approach.
Demi Lovato’s sixth album Tell Me You Love Me is a sterling example of the latter. Lovato might never again have the commercial clout she had in her Disney-starlet days. But rather than chase chart trends, she’s made an album that plays to her assets: Her tough-as-nails voice, as brassy and bold as any of the best disco divas’, and her ability to sell a song. It’s one of the year’s best pop releases, and if it’s by design, that hardly takes away from its strengths.
At 12 songs over 43 minutes, it doesn’t strain for an embarrassment of potential hits nor does it cheat the charts’ streaming laws like Drake’s recent slogs. Lacking the mid-album ballad morass of a lot of pop releases, many of its pleasures come simply from just how well it works as an album. In fact, after an opening triad of high-octane pop, the 6/8 tick-tock of “You Don’t Do it for Me Anymore” sounds exciting. We want to know how she’ll tackle the ballad format, and she attacks it with aplomb, high notes screaming to the sky like fireworks.
The production is full of surprises: An eerily frayed piano on “Only Forever,” a beat on “Games” that defies convention by ripping off early rather than later Timbaland. There are no truly batshit behind-the-boards efforts here, nothing that might overwhelm her voice; a voice which, like Adele’s (from whom she’s inherited a penchant for rusty little squeaks), can redeem even the least inspired beats.
For the most part, Tell Me You Love Me is good in an old-fashioned way, solid songs sung by a solid singer. “Games” rips into male entitlement with relish, and “Ruin the Friendship” makes a hook out of a thought anyone who’s lusted after a buddy has harbored. It’s also delightfully filthy at times. The post-coital shudder “Concentrate” is arranged as a bare-bones ballad, so it takes you aback when you notice how nasty it is. And if you don’t know anything about Lovato’s relationship with her dad, “Daddy Issues” will have you scrambling for the search bar.
Its flaws, aside from the lack of any truly great singles, are negligible. “Hitchhiker” is a bit one-note in its simile, and Lil Wayne—who, between this and Solange’s “Mad,” has made it clear he should reserve his guest verses for bro-rap bangers—shows up on “Lonely” to deliver a male perspective no one asked for. She also falls victim to what’s become a running joke in “mature” albums by former teen stars: Conspicuous and unconvincing use of profanity. She doesn’t need to say “fuck” to prove she’s grown up; the music does all the work for her.