Aggrievedness suits Demi Lovato well; always has. In her Disney days, she was — relatively speaking — the hellion of the crew, interested in abraded rock, tough-girl postures and smiles that cracked to reveal sneers.
Her years since teen-idol days have been chaotic: some great music and some not-so-great music, public struggles with bulimia and cutting, and in her latest phase, a role as empowerer in chief on the judging panel of “The X Factor.” Compared to the near-catatonic Britney Spears, Ms. Lovato was refreshingly direct, stern when she needed to be, but more often a source of wisdom. She was also a surprisingly good foil for Simon Cowell, whose signature disdain rolls off Ms. Lovato like so much rain and whom Ms. Lovato rightly sees as a bloated target, not an unstoppable monster.
She has dealt with far worse: that is clear from her music, which has been credibly tense and wounded almost from the start, a tone that continues unabated and even enhanced on “Demi,” her often impressive fourth album. Produced by the Suspex, the duo of Mitch Allan and Jason Evigan, it smartly abandons the pop-R&B songs of her last album, “Unbroken” — easily her shakiest to date — and recasts Ms. Lovato, rightly, in the Kelly Clarkson mold of big-throated singers who have had quite enough, thank you very much.
Unlike Ms. Clarkson, though, Ms. Lovato’s armor is not primarily vocal (though when she abandons the heavy vocal processing, she sings with firmness and an evident touch of vulnerability). “Heart Attack,” the single, has Ms. Clarkson’s familiar loud-soft pop-rock dynamics, matched with Ms. Lovato’s familiar self-doubt: “Never had trouble getting what I want/but when it comes to you I’m never good enough.” And throughout this album, from the chipper “Really Don’t Care” to the theatrical “Warrior,” to the bruising “Fire Starter,” she’s showing off her thick skin.
The production, too, is part of that skin, and it’s generally when it’s stripped down that Ms. Lovato confesses to any weaknesses, as on “Shouldn’t Come Back,” the latest in a suite of songs aimed at her estranged father, and also on the outstanding “In Case,” strikingly written by Priscilla Renea and Emanuel Kiriakou, which echoes the pomp of her 2011 hit “Skyscraper.” It places Ms. Lovato somewhere unusual: at someone else’s mercy — “Strong enough to leave you, but weak enough to need you.”
Ms. Lovato wears that frailty well, but not for long. A few songs later is the album’s other highlight, the breezy and tart “Something That We’re Not.” It’s a sign of pop’s out-of-whack gender relations that a song like this, in which an empowered woman blows off a guy who wants more, is so rare and therefore so bracing. “Don’t introduce me to any of your friends,” she commands. “Delete my number, don’t call me again/We had some fun but now it’s gonna end.” No arguments here. JON CARAMANICA