Ava Max was destined to be a pop star. Growing up, the Wisconsin native listened to the likes of Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and Beyoncé, studying their craft in hopes of one day becoming their peer. While the legendary performers’ influence is evident on the 26-year-old’s debut album, Heaven & Hell (out Friday, September 18), she has made sure to forge her own path.
Heaven & Hell is split into two sides like an old-school vinyl record, with the eighth song, “Torn,” representing a purgatory of sorts (Max even sings during the bridge, “I’m torn in between heaven and hell”). The first half is more pop-driven and carefree, while the second takes a darker, moodier approach. And yet, all 15 tracks are upbeat; Max refused to include a single ballad on her introduction to the world.
The electronic opener, “H.E.A.V.E.N,” sets the tone for the album before the women’s empowerment anthem “Kings & Queens” kicks in. The regal earworm — one of the best singles to come out of 2020 so far — gives Max a chance to showcase her powerful and theatrical vocals early on, and the glam-rock electric guitar solo that comes after the second chorus only adds to the pizzazz. She continues to preach feminism on “So Am I,” an ode to the misfits of the world, and “Tattoo,” a musical reminder that she leaves a permanent mark wherever she goes.
Max cowrote every song on Heaven & Hell, which features production by Cirkut, RedOne, Charlie Puth and other hitmakers. Some lyrics, while empowering, err on the side of cliché; “Naked” stresses that baring all in a relationship requires more than stripping away clothes, and “Salt” is about crying so much that you literally run out of the electrolytes needed to form tears.
Fortunately, the good far outweighs the bad. Max serves disco realness on Side A’s “OMG What’s Happening” and “Torn,” the latter of which subtly samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” Side B’s “Who’s Laughing Now,” meanwhile, has the catchiest chorus centered on the words “don’t cha” since The Pussycat Dolls’ 2005 hit.
With its yin-yang concept, Heaven & Hell is a promising launchpad for Max, who is bound to have one heck of a ride toward stardom.
3 stars (out of 4)