Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
“Would you like me better if I was still her?” asks Demi Lovato on their highly anticipated eighth studio album Holy Fvck, which the singer promised was a return to their pop-rock roots. But as declared here, they are done spoon-feeding themselves to us. “I know the girl that you adored,” they yell. “She’s dead, it’s time to fucking mourn.” The album is far from the first time a pop singer has declared a return to their roots and will be far from the last, but Holy Fvck almost immediately sets itself apart from a record produced to profit off nostalgia from algorithms. Rather, Lovato has created a refined and sophisticated collection of songs that is their best work lyrically to date. It just happens to be an album of hard rock and pop punk, done well.
When Lovato released their so-called comeback album Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over in 2021, it received minimal promotion despite possibilities for further pop singles and happened to pre-date Lovato’s coming out as nonbinary by just a few months. Now, the singer has renounced their “California sober” approach to sobriety following another stint in rehab late last year and was proud to confirm that Holy Fvck was made while they were entirely sober, something they couldn’t say about Dancing with the Devil. But regardless of which stage of sobriety Lovato was in during which recording process, it’s more than clear that Holy Fvck was the album they needed to make, part of a process of grief, mourning, and healing. “Sure, I’m sober now, and everyone’s proud / But I miss my vices,” they somberly confess.
The singer has described their current era as reclaiming their dark side, part of a refusal to continue defining themselves by other people’s standards. “I had to take my anger out of the shadows in order to heal,” Lovato told the Los Angeles Times. “I am owning my dark side, and it doesn’t have to take me down.” As an entertainer who remained with the management who’d been by their side since their Disney Channel beginnings for far too long, Holy Fvck is also a bold portrait of a queer person’s journey grappling with conformity, let alone addiction and mental illness. “I tried to be your hero / I lent you my voice,” they recall. “I was your poster child; it was working for a while / But it didn’t fill the void.”
Lovato’s new record is essentially a 16-track handling of trauma, and it’s empowering and cathartic. Aside from grappling with a multitude of personal struggles in the public eye for well over a decade, the singer has since confessed to suffering a rape when they were a teenager working for Disney as well as their newfound non-belief in organized religion. Holy Fvck’s album cover, made possible by the ground broken by Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” music video, seems to promise biblical subversions, a theme that delivers throughout. Lovato, who grew up performing in church choirs, confessed to feeling betrayed by the church as they grew older. The goth-rock influences on Holy Fvck cheekily expose Christian hypocrisies: “I can’t help it, guess I’m a heathen / Going to hell ‘cause it feels like heaven.”
Although Lovato’s fanbase has long yearned for a return to “Rockvato,” their affectionate nickname for their Disney pop-rock days, Holy Fvck is far from that. Instead, it’s the emo-punk persona that the singer has spent most of their life building, coming of age listening to emo groups of the mid-aughts. “Back when I worked on Disney Channel, I knew I could go this hard,” stated Lovato. “But it wasn’t until recently that I felt like I could accomplish this sound. I’ve had a lot of anger since coming out of treatment. These new songs are about taking the power back and owning my anger — something I pushed aside for years, because I thought it would make me less spiritual.”
That anger continues to manifest itself throughout the album in the forms of singles like “Substance” and “29,” the latter of which reflecting the perhaps inappropriate circumstances surrounding of one the singer’s romantic relationships. Guitarist Nina Strauss, who will tour with Lovato this fall in support of Holy Fvck, believes that rock fans want sincerity. “They don’t want somebody coming in, wearing a Metallica shirt once and making a quick buck. Once people see that this music is truly raw and real, and from Demi’s heart and soul, I think they will embrace her. There’s no fluff, no bubblegum about it.” If anything, Holy Fvck proves that maybe it was Lovato’s pop albums that were the fluff, and this is the substance they’ve been looking for.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Holy Fvck: “Freak,” “Skin of My Teeth,” “Substance,” “Eat Me,” “Holy Fvck,” “29,” “Happy Ending,” “City of Angels,” “Wasted,” “Come Together,” “Dead Friends,” and “4 Ever 4 Me”