Ava Max, an artist whose debut feels as if it should have come out years ago. When you look back her debut single “Sweet but Psycho” came out in 2018, and its now September 2020 with her debut album finally landing, and what a statement of intent it is.
It hasn’t been an easy ride, though. Comparisons with Lady Gaga, claims she’s not genuine and manufactured by Atlantic Records, alongside album delays. With all that in tow, you’d think her debut would be riddled with problems.
However, that isn’t the case.
Heaven & Hell is a great modern pop record, albeit an exceedingly safe and at times manufactured sounding one. You could argue it’s pop by the numbers and I couldn’t say you’re wrong. Does it feature big choruses, soaring vocals, sleek pop production and style over substance? YES, but is it a lot of fun? Without a doubt.
While the album features a lot of previously released singles, there is plenty of new anthems that match their raucous, carefree nature. The opener “H.E.A.V.E.N” is stylish and glossy, acting as the perfect taste to an album that screams style and fierceness.
Whereas “Naked” is our first real introduction to previously unreleased material. With a song like “Naked” most artists would have delivered a piano-led ballad, Max however, has served a strikingly bare, electric, and empowering rendition of vulnerability.
Sandwiched between is “OMG What’s Happening” which is pop bliss and even though it’s not new material, it deserves an honouree mention. Following on is “Call Me Tonight” which features luscious synths, corkscrew percussion, and sensual vocal melodies.
Max creates a juxtaposition, as the verses are seductive and falsely submissive, whereas the chorus screams rallying cry with Max beating on her chest and taking control. Once the curtains drop on “Call Me Tonight”, the rest of the album explodes in all it is poptastic glory.
Simply put, it’s hit after hit. “Torn” is remains a brilliant pop song thanks to its melodramatic production and a committed vocal performance merging to create a moody dancefloor killer.
Up until this point, the main criticism that I have towards Max’s debut is the lack of personality. While each song is well-engineered, carefully constructed and performed with precision, there’s little sparkle or hint of who Ava Max is.
Perhaps Max is a larger than life character and that her debut is merely an explosive introduction without depth; or perhaps ‘Heaven & Hell’ is simply meant to be a fun pop record and nothing more. Outside of the lack of personality, some of the production choices feel outdated.
Songs feature synths that sound circa-2010, while certain chords and melodies echo a similar feeling. There are a couple of instances that scream The Fame by Lady Gaga and that isn’t a criticism per se as it feels more like a homage than a copycat.
A song that feels less outdated and one of the stronger ones is the suitably brooding “Belladonna”. With its slow-burning and grand, molten instrumental that sizzles and builds throughout the verses, comes to life throughout its chorus. Gentle keys trickle as Max’s voice soars and as the song reaches its climax, everything explodes in a satisfying way.
Max ends Heaven & Hell with a one-two punch as she closes her debut with “Salt” and “Sweet but Psycho”, both channelling her penchant for luxurious, glittering pop. “Salt” is comprised of stellar vocals, ear-pleasing production, and a dose of cheesy lyricism for good measure.
“Sweet but Psycho” finishes the album with a bang. There’s a sense of poignancy, as she ends her debut with the single that started it all and of course it hasn’t lost its dazzling punch.
Admittedly, after my initial listens, Heaven & Hell did not end in glory. It wasn’t an immediate winner for me, but as I gave it more time and loosened up it quickly became the exciting, enjoyable, and light-hearted record it aims to be.
At no point does Ava Max try to be someone she is not; at no point does she attempt to be anything other than the popstar she strives to be.
Some may find that hard to swallow and as mentioned, some may find the lack of variation and safeness to be off-putting. But when it’s all said and done Ava Max has delivered an album that is well worth a listen and there’s plenty of pop gold to be found throughout.
Listen to Ava Max’s Heaven & Hell album on Spotify below and stream or purchase it everywhere else here.
Words by Jake Gould