Heaven & Hell: an analysis and review of the debut album from Ava Max

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Image belongs to Ava Max/Atlantic Records

Ava Max first gained worldwide momentum in 2018 with her surprise breakout hit “Sweet But Psycho”, but it wasn’t her first stab at becoming a pop star. Max tried releasing music on her own to no avail when she was 19, but it wasn’t until she met producer Cirkut at a party that things picked up traction. Max and Cirkut began writing material together, eventually putting out a song on SoundCloud that garnered attention from labels until Max finally signed with Atlantic Records. During that time, Max began figuring out her artistic identity and adopted the surname Max as she felt it was a good balance between masculine and feminine. During this time, Max found herself experimenting with her image, including her hair color and hairstyle to find something that visually represented her. One day, while cutting her hair and having to stop in the midst of it to rescue cookies from the oven, Max ended up cutting her hair into a bob on one side and found herself feeling comfortable with the resulting bob on one side, long hair on the other — a style Max deemed “the Max-Cut” and would become a trademark for the burgeoning pop star. Heaven & Hell, Max’s debut album, has been a long time in the making and though she had a major hit with “Sweet but Psycho”, her label’s insistence on chasing another hit ended up extending the album cycle longer than anyone imagined — at the time her album arrives, Max will have been promoting her debut for over two years. Still, Max hopes to establish herself as a pop star to watch with this album nevertheless, and her recent success with “Kings & Queens” suggests she still has a fair share of listeners ready to give her a chance to shine.

The album begins with “H.E.A.V.E.N”, meant to signal the start of the Heaven side of the album. It pairs a choral melody with some mild dubstep elements, as Max coos that heaven is what the listener likes, before descending in chopped vocal effects. It serves as a brief but pleasant introduction to the album. “Kings & Queens” interpolates Bonnie Tyler’s “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man) — itself having been rewritten as Bon Jovi’s bigger hit “You Give Love a Bad Name” — and puts a feminist twist on Tyler’s ruminations on getting her male lover to understand her perspective as a woman. Max uses a chess motif to empower women as queens who move more freely in the game than kings, glorifying female independence and calling upon men to acknowledge that their relationship with women is symbiotic. The song keeps the glam rock leanings of its predecessor with an electric guitar solo just before the bridge while adding more synth elements in its production and Max sings with conviction, positioning the song as a rallying cry for women worldwide. Max moves to straightforward lovey-dovey ’80s inspired synthpop on “Naked”, where she expresses a wary desire for her lover to see her for who she is, stating that just because they might see her naked body, it doesn’t mean they have truly seen everything she has to offer. The production is reminiscent of similar takes on the genre from Carly Rae Jepsen & Kim Petras, and Max gives a strong vocal performance here. “Tattoo” continues in the same vein with Max likening herself to a tattoo and stressing the permanence of her lover’s feelings for her, taunting them that once they spend the night together, they won’t be able to forget her. The euphoric and romantic production allows Max to flex her vocals again, as she laces the final chorus with vocal runs galore.

On “OMG What’s Happening”, Max is concerned with her relentless feelings for a love interest, somewhat horrified by the intensity of her feelings despite her attempts to alienate them. The production lifts the chord progression of Gloria Gaynor’s iconic disco classic “I Will Survive”, which serves as an interesting juxtaposition to Max’s desperation for her love interest. Max’s commitment to the campiness of the song, both with its production choices and her over-the-top spoken-word bridge where she expresses her prissy disgust for falling in love, makes the song a fun earworm for listeners. “Call Me Tonight” finds Max name-checking Versace and Bulgari as she heads out to a party and finds herself intrigued by a fellow partygoer, inviting them to spend the night with her. She positions herself as an enigmatic and dangerous temptress, teasing her love interest if they don’t know her name, they can just call her tonight and promising she will leave them heartbroken in the morning. The production blends a guitar riff cribbed from early-2000s pop music with dramatic strings during the verses, and making for a seductive and slightly devilish synthpop number. Introduced with church bells, Max extolls the pleasures of being a night owl on “Born to the Night”. She describes how out-of-place she feels during the daytime and her yearning for the night she feels a kinship with, donning leather and finding herself transformed for the better as she embraces the darkness within. The production samples Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and updates it to great effect during the chorus, while Max sounds elated with a buoyant chorus that utilizes her falsetto & professing herself as a child of the night with a vocodered bridge. “Torn” is the only song Max didn’t place in either of the Heaven or Hell themed parts of the album, giving it its a place as the solitary song representing Purgatory. Its placement is on-the-nose as Max sings of a hot-and-cold relationship with her lover, titillated and frustrated by the uncertainty between them — literally depicting herself as being torn between heaven and hell. Max riffs on ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” much as Madonna did on her club hit “Hung Up”, though Max’s interpretation hews closer to straightforward pop music than either of those compositions. Max plays up the camp here too, her vocals and ad-libs matching the overdramatic and polarizing nature of the relationship which serves at the song’s focus.

“Take You to Hell” serves as the transition to the Hell side of the album and as a warning from Max for her love interest to appreciate her or she will make their life miserable. Max sings over a swung piano-led production that sounds like ominous circus music. “Who’s Laughing Now” sees Max taunting an ex about her fortitude following their breakup and mocking their regret over the breakup — the song is also meant as a response to Max’s struggles with the music industry, functioning as a kiss-off to the negativity she has faced. The production adds flourishes of electric guitar and a slight reggae inflection that lends the song a resemblance to work from Ace of Base. Once again, Max feeds into the slightly demented persona on the song with screams and cackles as the song progresses. “Belladonna” sees Cirkut giving Max a swirling synth-led dark and moody R&B inflected beat akin to his work on The Weeknd’s Starboy. Max uses it to paint herself as a dark vixen and likening herself to the poisonous flower Belladonna, casting herself as an alluring and attractive figure who will cause her love interest pain and misery the closer they get. Max’s vocals also work well here, with Max whistling over the bridge and adding a seductive tone to the song. “Rumors” finds Max in a secretive fling with a love interest, and though she knows others will gossip about them, Max urges her lover to ignore the chatter and confesses her inability to stay away from them. The production is snappy and approaches the synthpop sound running through the album in a slightly darker but still effective form. Max declares that she is no longer able to cry over a past relationship on “Salt”, having fully moved on, and now celebrating her freedom as a single woman who is confident in her appearance and unwilling to revisit the past. The production gives Max’s vocals another chance to impress, as she sounds self-assured over a disco-pop beat that wrings the drama out of its prominent theatrical strings. “So Am I” served as the follow up to “Sweet but Psycho” back in 2019 and though both songs share similarities in terms of their throwback early 2010s synthpop sound, the former serves as a self-empowerment anthem as Max proclaims herself as a misfit and encouraging listeners if they feel the same to embrace their uniqueness. Though still enjoyable and infectious enough, it’s a bit of an outlier on the album in comparison to “Sweet but Psycho”, which shares a very similar sound, is catchier and slots in more comfortably with the rest of the album’s content. In a fitting finale, Max’s breakout hit serves as another reference to the themes of duality present throughout the album as Max reclaims the perception of her as being crazy, resolving instead to take ownership of herself as an independent woman and embracing her love interest’s acceptance of every facet of her personality.

With Heaven & Hell, Ava Max offers a cohesive debut album full of fun and well-crafted bubblegum pop songs. Max commits to a throwback synthpop & Europop sound with a glossy commercial sheen that she and her team manage to update enough so that the music feels fresh yet nostalgic. While in another’s hands that could make for a faceless record, Max injects real personality into the album and makes it her own. She commits to the campiness of the record and even without considering this is a debut album, the record is consistently solid throughout, with no real filler as Max wisely chooses not to include a ballad to keep the album’s momentum going. Her vocals serve as a highlight of the album, proving herself as a talented singer and offering some genuinely great performances. Though she doesn’t always adhere to the theme, Max does a sufficient job of peppering the contents with references to heaven and hell. It’s a debut album brimming with potential as Max and her team deliver an honestly great album on its own, but also one that complements Max’s talents and spotlights what she has to offer pop music going forward.

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