Heaven & Hell, by Ava Max
Long before the release of this album, Ava Max was the sort of artist that one would be concerned about ending up as a one-hit wonder. She broke into the mainstream with the hit song “Sweet But Psycho” which showed her as a cute but basic artist who made competent but hardly spectacular pop music. Throughout the course of the coming couple of years, she released lots of singles (many of them, thankfully, included on this set) which failed to chart but which demonstrated that she had a genuine sense of pathos for others. By the time she ended up getting her second hit, and a third minor charting hit, this album was secured as one that I would be interested in, without knowing if I would like all of the songs in it. So when a rankdown opportunity came for this album, I was very interested in listening to the album as a whole. So, is it basic, or somehow better than its first impression?
The album begins with the minor hit “My Head & My Heart,” which has a great sample and a fairly typical (for this artist) pull between two opposite and basic forces. This is followed by H.E.A.V.E.N., which is a short song that focuses on spelling out and describing how heavenly someone is. “Kings And Queens” was Ava Max’s second YE hit to keep her from being a one-hit wonder, and it too plays off the contrast between men and women, being catchy and basic. “Naked” is a gentle dance ballad about the contrast between Ava’s willingness to be without clothes but her struggle to be vulnerable to a partner. “Tattoo” is a lovely but short song about the effect of love, while “OMG Whats Happening” is a short and basic song expressing disbelief about what has happened to her in a relationship. “Born To The Night” features a lovely sample and a reflection on how Ava Max was born and raised to be when it comes to life and relationships. “Torn” is a moving song with a great sample that looks at Ava’s schizoid approach to love. “Take You To Hell” is a song that points to the “sweet but psycho” nature of Ava in love and relationships depending on how things go. “Who’s Laughing Now?” has a catchy melody but a rather repetitive and vengeful tone about dealing with a former partner. “Belladonna” compares the singer to an alluring but dangerous poison. “Rumors” is a discussion of the poisonous nature of certain forms of communication. “So Am I,” one of my favorite singles from this album, looks at Ava Max below the surface, encouraging others to see her as something other than she would appear as a pretty woman. “Salt” provides an interesting comparison of the singer to being without salt and thus unable and unwilling to cry for someone playing with her heart. “Sweet But Psycho” gives the first hit in a context with a lot of similar songs. Japanese bonus track “Not Your Barbie Girl” offers a dramatic reinterpretation of the Aqua hit.
Ava Max shows one set of tricks, but it’s a good set of tricks. Start with a great sample, construct a simple opposition between two states or qualities or include a fairly basic metaphor, and then explore how these relate to love and relationships and provide repercussions. This general framework is present both within the album itself (divided into two sides, heaven and hell, both of which are namechecked in their respective parts) as well as on the level of the individual song. One might think that this trick would grow old, but this album is an example that even albums which are filled with somewhat basic songs with the same approach can nonetheless be enjoyable. This is a classic 4/5 album, and while one would hope that Ava Max develops some depth beyond the pleasant but basic pop of this effort, this is not an album to be ashamed of. It delivers what one wants in dance pop music, good samples and lyrics that show considerable self-awareness and pathos. One need not feel guilty about nodding one’s head and singing along with the lyrics, and that is worth appreciating.