Every time I listen to “Skin of My Teeth,” the lead single from Demi Lovato’s eighth studio album HOLY FVCK, I can’t help but be reminded of a tweet I saw on the day of its release in June. “Don’t buy ‘Celebrity Skin’ from SHEIN,” someone said in the now-deleted tweet, referring to the fast fashion retailer known for cheap knockoffs of designer brands and synthetic clothing that can only be worn once before falling apart.
That person was comparing Lovato’s head-banging new single to the band Hole’s most famous song, a major touchstone of 1990s post-grunge alt-rock, positing that Lovato’s is a poor imitation of what Courtney Love did 24 years ago. And the thing is, the two songs do have more in common than just one word of their titles. Both open with an almost identical guitar chord before pausing to let their singer’s vocal in; both are ruminations on the nature of celebrity (and Love and Lovato’s places in it); and both clock in almost the exact same time (Lovato’s song is a mere one second longer).
Given their similarities, “Skin of My Teeth” should be looked at as both an intentional homage to Love and as an amuse-bouche for the rest of Lovato’s album, which arrived on Friday. The striking resemblance between the two songs is ultimately what makes Lovato’s take on this sound a compelling introduction to their current musical sensibilities. There’s a familiarity to this style, making HOLY FVCK an artistic left turn, but one that’s still super-accessible.
Demi Lovato doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they’re just looking for a way to channel their rage, confusion, realizations, and regrets from a life-altering past few years in the spotlight into art that helps them heal. And by dipping back into the genre that kickstarted their musical career and turning it up to an 11, HOLY FVCK combines artifice with authenticity for an alt-rock album that’s occasionally obnoxious, but never boring.
Aside from being an insanely catchy lead single, “Skin of My Teeth” is also a perfect amalgamation of what was to be expected on Lovato’s new album. “Demi leaves rehab again / When is this shit gonna end?” they ask in the third person as the song opens. Lovato has been more than transparent about their continued struggles with addiction and bulimia over the last decade, culminating most recently in a highly publicized, near-lethal opioid overdose in 2018. “Goddamn it, I just want to be free / But I can’t ‘cause it’s a fucking disease / I’m alive by the skin of my teeth,” they sing on the chorus, unleashing some of the strongest and most controlled vocals of their career thus far.
Their battle with addiction is far from the only headline-making topic discussed in the song. In the bridge, Lovato speaks to the universality of addiction while seemingly addressing their gender-fluidity, singing, “I’m just trying to keep my head above water / I’m your son and I’m your daughter.” It’s remarkably satisfying to hear a gender-fluid person describe their identity in such plain terms, and it’s another credit to Lovato’s courage to be willing to face the criticism of those who would rather remain indignant in the face of something so simple as a preferred pronoun. (For context, Lovato recently updated their pronouns to include “she/her” as well as “they/them,” but to maintain the evergreen nature of this review, I am using neutral pronouns.)
There’s plenty to mine from Lovato’s complicated and fascinating life across HOLY FVCK’s 16 tracks, almost every one replete with hardcore drums and ripping electric guitars that both underscore the weight of darker subjects and buoy the adrenaline and excitement of lighter, more approachable fare. Released as a promo single two days before the full album, “29” digs into a relationship from Lovato’s past with a considerable age gap—assumed by online detectives to be Wilmer Valderrama, whom they dated for six years beginning when Lovato was 17.
“Finally 29, funny, just like you were at the time / Thought it was a teenage dream, just a fantasy / But was it yours or was it mine? / Seventeen, 29,” Lovato sings in the chorus. It’s a standout track that considers the effects of grooming in Hollywood, and one that allows Lovato to relieve themselves of feeling like they had any fault in being taken advantage of at an age where they had no faculties to know any better.
But there’s plenty of room for Lovato to have some fun on this album as well. After a few doses of weighty traumatic angst, the one-two punch of “City of Angels” and “Bones” offers some moments of sexy respite from the darkness. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean they rock any less. “City of Angels” is a silly callback to early 2000s pop-punk about having sex at different Los Angeles landmarks, culminating in a deliciously tongue-in-cheek chant of, “Got me screamin’ ayo, on Ro-de-o!” And “Bones”? Well, Demi’s gonna jump ‘em in the chorus of this blown-out garage-rock banger.
Still, I’d be lying if I said that the most potent use of the tuned-in punk rock that bleeds from HOLY FVCK didn’t exist in its rawest cuts. The way Lovato writes and sings about addiction is, quite simply, harrowing to listen to. There’s no doubt about it: this is their most honest record to date (even if they do tend to say that with every new one they put out). “Happy Ending” is a particularly vulnerable track where Lovato ruminates on the relentlessness of addiction—and how being propped up as a symbol of celebrity sobriety only made it more noticeable when being sober didn’t fill the void that substances did.
“Am I gonna die trying to find my happy ending? / Will I ever know what it’s like to be fine without pretending?” they ask, calling to attention the very real possibility of relapse in recovery. On “Substance,” they stare down that imposing demon by naming it directly while pleading with the world and those around them for a little more authenticity. “Am I the only one looking for substance?…Don’t wanna end up in a casket, head full of maggots / Body full of jack shit, I get in abundance.”
Even when addressing such heavy and layered topics as addiction and identity, though, the album never feels preachy. In fact, it sounds like Lovato is broaching these subjects with much more knowledge and perspective than they had in the past. HOLY FVCK arrives at an important time in Lovato’s career. Their last album, 2021’s Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over, often felt over-congratulatory and naive with its songs about overcoming eating disorders and being sober but still smoking weed. On those tracks, Lovato was writing as if their lifelong troubles and traumas were already long in the rearview mirror. But it wasn’t too long before Lovato admitted they were no longer “California Sober.” “Sober sober is the only way to be,” they posted on Instagram late last year.
Of course, it’s hard to write about aspects of your life that are deeply personal to you in 16 different ways on one album without an occasional misstep. Take “Feed,” on which Lovato states with not even a hint of irony, “I got two wolves inside of me, but I decide which one to feed.” Sorry, but it’s simply impossible to make that imagery work without conjuring years of different takes on the viral “Inside You, There Are Two Wolves” memes.
Elsewhere, “Heaven” uses religious iconography as a trite allegory for masturbation. And then there’s the pre-chorus of “Freak,” which twists the album’s promising opener into cringey carnival music for a few seconds before launching into a heavy metal chorus. It’s a short Ringling Brothers interlude between verse and chorus, but not short enough to finish by the time it took me to roll my eyes into the back of my head.
Those minor blunders aside, it’s to the credit of Lovato and the album’s producers that the music on HOLY FVCK sounds superb. It can be just as easy for a rock album to feel as homogenous as a pop album—with too many songs sounding so similar that the record loses a larger identity—but each track here is unique, making repeat listens a fun and worthwhile endeavor. Like fellow ex-Disney star Miley Cyrus, who went for a more straightforward rock sound on her fantastic 2020 album Plastic Hearts, it seems Lovato has found a genre that fits their stunning vocal abilities like a glove.
Lovato’s early claim that this album represents a “funeral for their pop music” isn’t exactly true. Make no mistake, this is very much still a pop album, but only in terms of its larger-scale accessibility. Only time will tell whether HOLY FVCK is a musical detour, like Lady Gaga’s Joanne, Nelly Furtado’s Loose, or any Madonna album (man, pop star deviations can be so damn good!). But if Lovato wants to keep traversing the alt-rock genre, there are endless possibilities ahead.
So how can we know if HOLY FVCK really is Lovato at their most vulnerable and sincere or if this sound is just another hat to try on? We can’t, of course. In all likelihood, we could be back here again next year, discussing the new direction of album number nine. But for an artist who already has an entire record called “Confident,” Lovato’s self-assurance has never been more palpable and believable.
HOLY FVCK suits both Demi the Hitmaker and Demi the Headlinemaker. It’s a representation of someone who can look in the mirror after many hard-fought years and finally see themselves clearly, having learned to heal by doing a little head-banging. We all need that release somehow.