Demi Lovato could have drawn on her own comeback playbook. The singer, whose battles with addiction and mental illness have been widely documented and dissected since they first sought treatment in 2010, has historically returned from rehab with a solemn message about their struggles. In 2011 it was with ‘Skyscraper’, a raw power ballad about the reconstruction of a collapsed life. In 2020, after a near-fatal overdose, it was with “Anyone,” a plea for compassion, debuted, through tears, at the Grammys. Both on that stage and in the video for “Skyscraper,” Lovato performed in a chaste white dress, a sign of repentance and rebirth.
If you didn’t already know that Demi went back to rehab, she’ll be the first to tell you. “Demi leaves rehab again” is the opening line – delivered with a sardonic bite, as if trying to snatch the words from haters and gossip – from “Skin of My Teeth”, the lead single from her eighth album, Holy Fvck. Sometime after last year’s release Dancing with the devil… The art of starting over, an ultra-exposed document of self-reinvention after self-immolation, Lovato quietly underwent another round of treatment. It seems that there are still question marks surrounding their own very survival, a central preoccupation of their music: “I’m alive in the nick of time,” reads the chorus. But instead of donning the white dress, this time Lovato tackles latex and leather, grabs a spiky guitar and borrows from Hole. Go to hell often enough and eventually you will come back hardened.
Holy Fvck delivers on its promise of sweaty, fearful excess with a tour of pop punk and adjacent genres. Opener “Freak” sets the tone with sloppy metal guitars and guttural sounds, plus a performance from YUNGBLUD – like Lovato, a Disney Channel alum with an alternative slant – whose gritty voice makes the song rough like sandpaper. Throughout the album, Lovato’s idea of transgression incorporates abrasive sounds into songs about pleasure and pleasant hooks into songs about pain and death, plus some punctuation “fuck!” just because. Rather than tap into current pop-punk kingpin Travis Barker, Lovato stuck with returning producer Warren “Oak” Felder, whose work for Alessia Cara and Lizzo is noticeably light on headbangers. But this is not a half-hearted rebranding: On Dancing with the devilLovato sang about rebirth, and beyond Holy Fvckshe executes it by jettisoning the pop R&B palette that has defined her records for ten years.
The sounds Lovato has been looking for—swinging, cymbal-heavy drums, rumbling electric guitars, busted bridges—have regained their value in recent years as pop punk has gained new mainstream following in Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo, and Willow. Lovato positioned this album not only as her pop-punk album, but also as her homecoming – a return “to my roots,” as she wrote on Instagram. It is true that her musical interests have long been sharper than her public personality would suggest. As early as 2008, Lovato confessed her fascination for metal for rolling stone; during press before Holy Fvck, she remembers crowd surfing at a performance by the Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir as a young teenager. The music she herself was making around that time, with its slightly thumping guitars and love-it-or-leave-it-spunk, was about as raw as she could get away with in the conservative Disney ecosystem.