In January 2011, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato both finished their stints on the successful Disney Channel shows that propelled them to stardom. Since then the two have focused on their singing careers while making time for the occasional return to acting. And on Friday each released her sixth studio album.
If the women have been following parallel tracks, though, they've ended up in very different places. Cyrus, 24, is regarded as an important artist making idiosyncratic creative choices — an auteur, essentially — while Lovato, 25, is thought of as a journeyman hit-maker — or, in more simple terms, a hack.
Making the promotional rounds this week, Cyrus sat for high-toned interviews with NPR and Apple Music's Zane Lowe, where the red carpet has also been rolled out for Lady Gaga and Father John Misty. And Lovato? She fielded softballs from Mario Lopez on his syndicated radio show.
Yet Cyrus' "Younger Now" and Lovato's "Tell Me You Love Me" suggest we've gotten this all wrong. Yes, the former boasts the type of concept that pop fans tend to take as a sign of ambition; in this case, the framing device is that Cyrus, whose father Billy Ray hit it big in the early '90s with "Achy Breaky Heart," has turned from the hip-hop provocations of recent years and re-embraced her roots as a child of Nashville.
But Cyrus' self-styled country album might be the most weakly considered event record of the year, with lumpy melodies, slapdash rhythms and lyrics that border on self-parody (and not in the way that Nashville's finest know how to do). Even a duet with Dolly Parton, "Rainbowland," feels like it was thrown together mere minutes before Cyrus and her producer, Oren Yoel, entered the studio.
You get the sense that the singer would say that's precisely the idea — that "Younger Now" is her doing away with the artifice of "Bangerz" and "Her Dead Petz" and just embracing the moment, man. But these songs are too dull and formless to sell that notion. And coming after similar makeunders by Lady Gaga and Kesha, they make Cyrus sound like the trend-watching opportunist she's long been defined in opposition to.
"Tell Me You Love Me," on the other hand, presents a singer burning with purpose. There's no overarching narrative or story here (or if there is, it doesn't come through); like Lovato's earlier efforts, the album collects a bunch of tunes she made with various writers and producers climbing their way to the A-list that Cyrus has had access to for years.
But the songs aren't hackwork — they're catchy and funny and sexy and daring. In "Sorry Not Sorry" Lovato blasts an ex over a malt-shop beat whose sweetness only emphasizes her glorious lack of mercy; the unapologetically twisted "Daddy Issues" finds her cozying up to a guy who can't commit: "Lucky for you, I got all these daddy issues," she sings.
One thread that connects several tracks is the interest in R&B that Lovato has shown in a handful of awards-show appearances (most notably on last year's Grammy Awards, where she demolished Lionel Richie's "Hello"). "Ruin the Friendship" is a sultry slow jam complete with horns that could've been borrowed from D'Angelo, while "Hitchhiker" closes the record with Lovato working her falsetto over funky church organ.
Is anybody likely to think of "Tell Me You Love Me" as Lovato's "Voodoo"? Of course not — we've been trained not to. And besides the album looks in too many other directions: disco, EDM, gloomy electro-goth balladry. So far that variety has kept us from thinking of Lovato as someone with a clear vision. But she might have something more valuable, and that's follow-through.