In the span of months, Disney star Demi Lovato, only 19, has gone from ugly tabloid stories--many probably false, but still--about cocaine, eating disorders and regrettable parties to releasing her third solo album, Unbroken, after towering (ahem) acclaim for redemptive lead single "Skyscraper." This is 2011, of course, so her tours include fewer covers of goth metal and more of Lil Wayne, and her album features fewer guitars and more appearances by the likes of Dev, Jason Derulo and Iyaz. Popdust's Katherine St. Asaph and Sound of the City's Nick Murray chat about Demi growing up in public.
Katherine St. Asaph (Popdust): The whole Demi Lovato album campaign's come seemingly out of nowhere, going from 0 to "Skyscraper" and then to Unbroken, the new album.
Nick Murray (Sound of the City): Yeah, out of nowhere Demi Lovato starts getting critical buzz, while Joe Jonas plays a VIP-only show when Santos Party House takes over Saks Fifth Avenue for Fashion Week. How did we get to this point?
Katherine: Everybody likes redemption. Especially considering how (really, really, really) uncomfortable all the tabloid stories about Demi had gotten.
Nick: I imagine that much of the good press this record has gotten relates to how easy it is to find those stories (or the fallout from them) in the songs. But beyond the lyrical content, those tabloid stories have really determined the direction of the album and at this point, her career. Whereas most artists seem to attempt the transition out of teenpop by showing how edgy they've become (e.g. Miley Cyrus becoming a bird who can’t be tamed in the video for “Can’t Be Tamed,” or Joe Jonas using drunk driving as a metaphor for a night in the club—or is it the other way around?—in “Fast Life”), for Lovato, that wasn't really an option.
Katherine: Yeeeaaaaaah. Or take someone like JoJo, who drops lines like "I've been up for three days / Adderall and Red Bull" on covers of "Marvin's Room." That would be a bad idea for Demi.
Nick: Growing up by hitching your star to Drake, a rapper whose initial selling point was middle-school level punchlines is certainly a strange move.
Katherine: It's worked for her, though, right? JoJo's been really, really good at making people marvel at how she's not 14. That's sort of what Demi needs to do, except with less drugs. The idea's always to get off Radio Disney and onto pop radio.
Nick: What does Lil Wayne say on "Money to Blow?" Something about how they'll be all set if they keep putting Drake on every hook. So maybe Demi can sing a hook or two on Take Care? Because if there's anything I came away with after listening to Unbroken, it's that HOLY SHIT DEMI LOVATO CAN REALLY SING. But after 15 songs, I got the point.
Katherine: I know, right? She starts off "All Night Long" at about 80% voice, and then things keep going full-throttle for song after song until you get to something like "Lightweight," which is quiet for a verse until the chorus comes in and Demi's powering through words like "I'm a lightweight / better be careful what you say / with every word I'm blown away." A lot of new artists fall into this trap, especially if they think they have something to prove.
Nick: Seriously, when I heard "Lightweight" I began questioning whether I'd be able to finish the album.
Katherine: It's like this song from Once Upon A Mattress called "Shy," where the joke is that you're belting out the I'M SHYYYYYYYYYY! part on the chorus.
Nick: It actually makes "Hold Up," a track that would overpower anything on, say, Selena Gomez's When the Sun Goes Down, sound light. I think it helps that there, the producers take a little air out of her voice by looping it a little and introducing some echo.
Katherine: Ah, "Hold Up" and its metaphor. It doesn't actually mention a balaclava, though, so at least there's that? I wouldn't say Unbroken is bad, though, by any means. It's solidly midlist, which is about what you can expect for someone like Demi who's trying to a) establish herself again, and b) get onto radio rotation. This was pretty much the only route she had -- her old pop-rock stuff like "Here We Go Again" was great for its time, but women just don't break as readily with pop-rock anymore unless they're in Paramore. Kelly Clarkson's new song sounds like Bruno Mars, Avril Lavigne's gone full Max Martin and even Fefe Dobson gets tracks that sound like "No Air."
Nick: Very true. Though even if the radio were more open to women in pop-rock, I think we'd still see her moving away from the guitar-driven sound of Don't Forget, if only because moving to pop radio tends to require a disavowal of your old Disney persona. Like Joe Jonas, she was going to need to leave Camp Rock sooner or later. (Ironic, of course, because the records are still coming out on Disney's Hollywood imprint.)
Katherine: It's probably telling that only a few tracks are produced by people like Bleu (other credits: Hanson, Selena Gomez, Jonases) and Rock Mafia (Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens, etc.) and more have names attached like Ryan Tedder or Toby Gad or Timbaland. Who sounds nothing like Timbaland, by the way, ever. The closest he gets is probably "All Night Long," and even that's obviously trying to emulate "Toxic."
Nick: Yeah, if only for the fact that Missy and Timbo, however deprived of their powers, are featured and producing, respectively. As for the other Timbaland beats: I think we've made it pretty clear how we feel about "Lightweight," and the muted drums on "Together" suggest dude's been listening to 40/Drake lately? That's sort of interesting, right? No, I guess not.
Katherine: If anything, he's been listening to Ryan Tedder.
Nick: Timbaland should just listen to Welcome to Our World on repeat and try to figure out how to do that again.
Katherine: Or Nelly Furtado, or even Justin Timberlake before that one song we don't talk about! That said, a lot of it works pretty well. I'd be OK if Demi ratcheted down "All Night Long" about a quarter of the way -- as it stands, it's a bit frantic, and you kind of get the feeling the guy's never gonna call the number in his phone-phone-phone-phone. But if you were going to pick a second single, that would be it. That or the title track, the closest Demi comes to rocking out -- which means it sounds more like RedOne than anything, but at least the music sounds as big as Demi's voice.
Nick: One thing I really enjoy about this album is that, at least on Spotify, it comes with a companion album called About Unbroken, in which Demi Lovato gives 30-second soundbites about why she loves each track.
Katherine: Any tracks she loves in particular?
Nick: "Skyscraper," of course. She's really excited about how the lyrics to "Hold Up" turned out to be "so metaphorical." Her little sister really digs "You're My Only Shorty." And Missy actually asked her to rap on "All Night Long," so that's pretty cool.
Katherine: Some of this makes me seem like I didn't like Unbroken. By nature it's going to be unevenly split between radio singles and redemption tracks, but then again, Selena Gomez's album does the same thing, and both It Gets Better-bait "Who Says" and synthier stuff like "Love You Like A Love Song" are charting OK.
Nick: As far as the Selena comparison goes, Unbroken sounds to my ears closer to A Year Without Rain, which was also mired too often in sub-RedOne production (although I think RedOne actually had a role in one track) than the new one, which I actually quite like. We were supposed to give out a star rating, right? In that case, I'd probably go with a mostly arbitrary 2 out of 5, even though I agree that the album isn't bad. I get what she's doing with it and how she's positioning herself, but I really don't see myself willfully listening to it ever again.
Katherine: It's definitely a singles album. Listening to it is like going down a checklist: ballad time! slow jam o'clock! song-about-your-dad break! ("For the Love of a Daughter," which is no "Unforgiven" but no Lindsay Lohan either.) But I'd say 3/5. This is basically a reboot; Demi's entitled to some filler.
Nick: Well, this has been really enjoyable and well worth falling a few hours behind in the rest of my work. When she follows this up with a Weeknd collab we'll have to reconvene.
Katherine: Until then!