Ava Max is a ready-for-radio pop star. On her debut album Heaven & Hell, every record is built for radio and streaming service playlists, with the longest track clocking in at just 3 minutes and 42 seconds. But this doesn’t just feel like an album of singles thrown together in hopes of making an album. There’s a concept loosely threaded through them. It’s never fully realized, but the elements of it permeate throughout the album’s 15 tracks.
A perfect example of this half-assed concept is the album’s opener “H.E.A.V.E.N.” The record is positioned as the introduction to the Heaven side of the album (the album is broken up into a heaven side, a hell side, and a single song in purgatory), but it doesn’t really say much. To be approximate, she spells “Heaven” a few times and calls her suitor heavenly, all with just 10 words.
The Heaven side of the album is arguably stronger than the Hell side. The already-released “Kings And Queens” with it’s “You Give Love A Bad Name”-inspired sample, and “OMG What’s Happening” are two of the album’s catchiest tracks. “Naked” is also an earworm in the making (it’s like Carly Rae Jepsen meets “California Girls,” which was also co-written by Bonnie McKee and features her signature driving beat). But then there’s a record like “Born to the Night,” which sounds like a marriage of Gaga’s “Marry The Night,” “Edge of Glory” and any other interchangeable 80’s synth-inspired, electro-pop record.
On the hell side’s introduction “Take You To Hell,” she sings of exacting revenge on a neglectful suitor. It’s haunting synth and piano parts create a perfect ambiance for the album’s darker side. There’s also the vengeful “Who’s Laughing Now” with it’s innocent whistling and subdued ukulele accompaniments that certainly make it stand out musically from the album’s Hell side. Then there’s the dubstep-pop “Belladonna.” The song’s great verses and spooky progression are undercut by the insufferable repetition of the song’s title four times in a row on the chorus. It blows the record right past ‘catchy’ to ‘annoying’ and a deterrent from repeated playbacks. There’s also the misplaced yet catchy “So Am I,” which takes being “dark and twisted” and being dressed like Sid and Nancy. These flat caricatures transform into a rather perplexing empowerment anthem. The only thing hellish about the song is its attempt to masquerade as something that belongs on the haphazard “hell” side of this record.
Heaven & Hell is full of catchy songs, and Max can thank producer Cirkut, who produced the entire album, for laying the groundwork for these records. He has a history of crafting catchy, successful pop records. For years he worked alongside the taboo Dr. Luke, and his co-production and co-writing credits include Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been?,” Kesha’s “Die Young,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Maroon 5 & Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” and Marina and the Diamonds’ “Primadonna.” The problem? These records could be anyone’s. Vocally and visually, she’s just another pop tart in the mix.
The album ends on a high note though, with Max’s ubiquitous “Sweet But Psycho.” The record has had more than 2 years to oversaturate into listeners’ brains. It’s a stellar pop record and a poignant way to close out this record aimed at exploring two extremes. While both the album and Max never realize their full potential, if this is any indication, Ava Max is just getting started.
Key Tracks: “Kings & Queens,” “Naked,” “Take You To Hell,” “OMG What’s Happening”
Stream Ava Max’s Heaven & Hell