2014-09-12

Album Review: Demi Lovato - Demi



A few days ago I received a promotional email from Google Play, offering me a free download of Demi Lovato's most recent album, Demi. I'm a sucker for free music, so I hastened to avail myself of the offer, even though I wouldn't count myself among Lovato's fan base.

In fact, prior to listening to this album, I can only remember hearing one other Demi Lovato song, although I had certainly heard her name and seen her pictures before. I even knew a thing or two about the celebrity gossip in which she had been ensconced, whenever it was she was ensconced in it. I am also told that she has been on TV. And this, my friends, was the sum total of my Demi Lovato knowledge, prior to listening to her album.

On the one hand, this lack of familiarity makes me ill-equipped to review the album in the context of the rest of her work. On the other hand, this does give me the advantage of being able to assess the music more or less on its own merits, without being bogged down by the prejudices that come with having a great deal of familiarity with a particular artist or genre.

Having thus set up my review of the album, one might expect me to review it quite favorably. Unfortunately, Demi feels to me like a tragic combination of missed opportunities and the general state of the popular music industry as it exists today.

When I say "missed opportunities," what I mean is that a number of the songs on Demi have very real potential for greatness.

The song "Two Pieces," for example, features a strong vocal performance and some interesting, elaborate compositional elements, both of which are masked by what I would call poor production decisions. The vocal harmonies are hidden behind the over-powering sound of a synthesizer that attempts to mimic the sound of distorted guitars and basses playing in unison.

That song is followed by two more - "Nightingale" and "In Case" - that start off almost identically, with soft vocals accompanied only by a "piano." (I use the term "piano" loosely here since, as far as I can tell, nearly every instrument that appears on this album is a synthesizer.) One can't be too critical of that sort of set-up, considering that Demi Lovato is a female vocalist, and piano intros are the bread-and-butter of female-lead power ballads. In this instance, however, what might otherwise be the album's strongest song, "In Case," gets buried at the tail end of a trio of similar-sounding songs, reducing its emotional impact. Once again, it is a missed opportunity.

The consistently weakest elements of the album are the inescapable domination of fake instrument sounds, which leave the music feeling stiff, over-compressed, and artificial, and the over-reliance on four-chord songwriting. (Think of it as Nickelback in a sequin clubbing dress.)

This is all a real shame, considering Lovato's undeniably fantastic voice, which demonstrates some real maturity over my memory of her previous work. (The fake vintage-Motown r&b accent Lovato over-uses on her previous hits is still there, but it's slowly going away, and good riddance!)

The other problem with Demi is not really the album's fault at all, so much as the fault of the forces that have been working to destroy the quality of music for a long time. As Prince once mentioned in a PBS interview some time ago, many modern musicians seem to have failed to properly learn their craft.

I seriously doubt Lovato - or any of her peers, for that matter - could explain any of the music theory behind her own songs. And while that might not be necessary for a song to be good, it still strikes me as odd that one can consider oneself a professional musician while knowing so little about music. Consider a professional data analyst who knew how to program linear regressions, but couldn't explain basic statistical theory. Both imply that there are problems with the hiring process, even if the work itself still has the potential to be acceptable.

But the real problem with failing to learn one's craft is that songs that might sound kind of special when played with a small ensemble of people collaborating on a nice arrangement end up sounding like bits and pieces of samples strung together via GarageBand. The last thing a professional artist should want to sound like is a bedroom musician toiling away in the basement. The production quality is certainly there throughout the Demi album, but the quality of the songwriting is not far above what you might here from any of the local friends on your Facebook feed.

Isn't it a shame that someone with such a lovely singing voice exists in a world that must stomp out all the best qualities of music with a combination of bad production decisions and songwriting that is simply divorced from the experience of making music with a room full of other people?

High points for me were the songs "In Case" and "Shouldn't Come Back," both of which feature instrumentation that is a bit more realistic than the others, and which demonstrate Lovato's genuinely good singing voice. The lowest point on the record is perhaps "Really Don't Care," which feels too much like a Taylor Swift knock-off. (Can you imagine that someone actually wants to sound like Taylor Swift?)

All it in all, it is a decent album if you are a sixteen-year-old female. The rest of you can pass this one by.