Release Date: September 18th 2020
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
Ava Max– Heaven & Hell (Amazon mp3/iTunes)
- Kings & Queens
- OMG What’s Happening
- Call Me Tonight
- Born to the Night
- Take You to Hell
- Who’s Laughing Now
- So Am I
- Sweet but Psycho
It’s been a long time coming. The album’s actually been done, but the pandemic pushed it back. But I feel like this is the new normal now, as horrible as that is to say, so now we’re releasing it, finally. It’s ‘Heaven and Hell’: side A is ‘Heaven,’ ‘Torn’ is purgatory, and ‘Hell’ is side B. So, it kind of gets you through this journey…
My parents were very supportive from the beginning. My mom sang opera, and my dad played the piano, my uncles are in music, my grandpa and grandma made music, so the entire family loved music. And so, when I started singing, and I loved to sing, they were like, ‘Oh, she’s actually good. We should support it,’ … In South Carolina, they loved country music, but they also loved rap music, so I got into country and rap music. And then in Virginia, I would just listen to pop. So everywhere, whatever my friend circle listened to, I listened to as well.
When I was writing the song, one says, ‘Torn in between heaven and hell’ and I was listening to it one day, and I was like ‘heaven and hell, wow, all the songs have dualities to them.’ It goes with the whole thematic imagery I see in my head, with this and that, like the angel, the devil, but not so literal — it’s more what we go through in everyday life, we kind of have this rollercoaster, literally called life, and how ironic it feels we’re literally in heaven and hell one day, these days. But I think it just makes sense for the album, and the songs, and everything that I’ve been through.
When I was younger, I never really understood the lyrics [of pop songs]; it was more so the energy I felt, that I wanted to dance. It ignited my fire, and I just wanted to feel like that all the time.
Personally in my own life, I have gravitated towards Christian music and inspirational music glorifying Jesus, and encouraging us in our walk with Jesus… simply because I’m a believer in Christ and I find that type of music most resonating to me, as it is speaking about a focus to eternity, and that we as believers have a much bigger perspective that those who are not- we have an eternal perspective thus hardships and heartache gain a much more transient meaning. Not to be flippant though, and to say that all hardships are immaterial in light of eternity… but when viewed through Jesus and everything He’s done for us; hard times aren’t this ‘woe is me, my life is over’ kind of thing, but rather something that God can use for us to grow as people and for us to grower closer to Him. Christian music was always uplifting, and there seemed to be no valid reason for me to venture out of my ‘comfort zone’ in terms of musical genres.
Yet it is mainly and predominantly only because of the blog series that my brother and I have been writing over the past year and a half (if you’re not sure which blog series I’m referring to, it’s this one, the series about the most influential artists of all time!) that I started to branch out into other musical genres. Sure, Christian music was still uplifting and encouraging, but so was mainstream music. And for a long time, I tried to explain away my love for mainstream music. Like maybe I resonated with certain mainstream artists because they were Christian, and I didn’t with artists that were not Christian. Yet over the past year and a half I’ve found myself liking music from artists that weren’t even believers… and then I stopped trying to explain how God moved and worked. I wasn’t going to defend or argue as to why I felt that Christian music was supposed to be superior. Because what listening to a wider range of artists lately has taught me, is that encouragement and inspiration can come from any place. God can use anything, and even non-believers, to draw us closer to Him. Crazy, right? Well now, during this pandemic and during lockdown, I’ve been inspired and encouraged by another artist. Amanda Ava Koci, known by her stage name Ava Max, released her self titled debut project Ava Max about a month ago, and boy let me tell you that the 15-track album is very, very hopeful and encouraging, as many themes and relevant topics are explored. Though I myself do not know Ava’s faith (or lack of), I feel it isn’t really relevant when assessing how resonating and impacting an album is. For many of you who may have listened to Ava’s album, you may agree as to the impactful-ness and hopefulness and encouraging nature of this project… but for those who only listen to Christian music and don’t venture out much musically, like how I used to be; let me quickly give you my brief thoughts of Heaven And Hell.
Growing up with Albanian refugees as parents, and being exposed to a wide variety of musical genres such as opera and pop, Ava’s debut album musically and sonically is a breath of fresh air, as she marries many genres together and creates a musical and lyrical experience so unique and introspective. Opening track “H.E.A.V.E.N” is a 1 minute interlude and intro, driven by synth and electronic dance effects, whereby Ava earnestly relays that ‘heaven’s what you’re like’- and this lyric being sung over and over again could literally mean anyone or anything. And that’s the beauty of songs like this and others on the album- is that the double or triple meanings that one can glean from it, make the project more accessible and relatable to audiences with a wide range of beliefs and creeds. And as Ava compellingly relays her view of a certain someone and compares them to heaven; we are glimpsed into the storytelling of someone who is happy and secure in all of their relationships, be it romantic or platonic, as they move through all of the messy facets of life, and the myriad of emotions that come with that.
Lead single “Kings And Queens” is a BOP by nature, featuring heavy electronics, and features Ava eloquently declaring the importance of females in basically human history. Highlighting that females add a different perspective to the world rather than males, this track isn’t meant to bring down males but rather empower females and encourage them to be bolder and more fearless in their decision making. Quite frankly though, there’s so much to talk about this song- if you want to, you can read more on genius.com, and as you read through the verified commentary from Ava, I’m sure you’ll gain a better perspective of what the track is trying to convey. For me I saw unity, comradery and raising people up in “Kings And Queens”- is that what you gain from this hard-hitting track?
“Naked”, one of the most vulnerable songs on the entire album, is a mid tempo ballad, that speaks to the core of our insecurities and about the very nature of feeling unworthy. As Ava fervently relays that she wants to she people her entire self, but is afraid of judgement and hate, hence the statement ‘…if you don’t know my heart, you’re never gonna break it…’, we are glimpsed into a persona who wants to share their entire selves with someone else, but needs reassurance that they’ll be accepted, as Ava belts out ‘…tell me if it’s safe to bare my soul, I wanna show you my deepest secrets, I think I’m ready to be exposed I want you watching me, when you take off all my clothes and really see me naked, see me for real…’. The super catchy and poppy “Tattoo” delves into the dichotomy of wanting a permanent relationship right away, versus taking things slow but risk a potential breakup down the line- and deeper than that subtly exploring our own deepest desires for connection, and our fear of being lonely forever; while “OMG What’s Happening” is a toe tapper and danceable melody also, with Ava singing to an unnamed lover, telling them that they’ve got a hold of her entire heart and that she can’t live without them- essentially speaking about what happens when you meet your ‘soulmate’ or the one who want to be with forever. Sung in a way that the person is changing the fabric of your current human existence, this song ultimately reminds us that change is very good, if it makes us better people and it means that our character grows as a result.
“Call Me Tonight”, a laid back chilled electronic track if ever there was one, speaks about the realities of one-night stands. While never condemning them nor glorifying them, and also not solving the situation, Ava subtly asks us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask us about whether we want to treat people like expendable objects or as people with dignity and respect. “Born Into The Night” speaks about a person whose priorities right now are for self-gratification and just having fun- and again, Ava is subtly asking us as to whether we want to be like this person or not, and if not what steps are we actively doing to change that; while “Torn” depicts someone in a abusive relationship, wanting to leave, but making excuses for the other person- this song is so sad given that some people are in this reality, however I am positive that “Torn” will nonetheless bring healing and inspiration and reassurance to people in those situations, reminding them that everything will be ok in the end with friends and family by your side.
The musically dark and mysterious “Take You To Hell” has Ava eloquently relaying that ‘…if you’re gonna treat me right, I’ll take you to Heaven every night, but God forbid you leave me by myself, I’ll take you to Hel…’, in a song that needs no explanation, but is essentially a warning for us to treat everyone with respect and chivalry simply because it’s the right thing to do; while promotional single and catchy pop number “Who’s Laughing Now” is a personal highlight, as Ava sings to everyone who has wronged her, proclaiming out ‘…don’t ya know that I’m stronger? Don’t ya see me in all black? Don’t ya cry like a baby? Ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha, who’s laughing now?…’– a song about revenge and justice, and getting even with the haters who said that she would fail… but it’s also a song that makes us feel good as it proves to the doubters that we aren’t what they said we would be. The heartbreaking and confronting synth driven “Belladonna” describes a person who breaks a lot of hearts, and is a warning to all of us to stay away from those kind of people; while “Rumors” speaks about a couple so secure in their relationship so much so that all of the rumours around them about the motivation for said relationship and the inevitable breakdown of said relationship, falls on deaf ears.
“So Am I” is an empowering anthem for all of the misfits and all of the outcasts, and just generally for everyone, and an encouraging and heartfelt melody. As Ava lets us know that even when we feel alone, we aren’t because we’re all outcasts and misfits in some weird way- we’re all different and that’s ok; “So Am I” speaks to the core of standing out for our uniqueness and individuality- not caring about what other people think but being secure in our own identity. “Salt”, the penultimate song on Heaven & Hell, delves into the finality of ending a relationship and the moment that we’ve realised that we’re ‘out of salt’ meaning that we’ve moved on from the other person; while the highly controversial single “Sweet But Psycho” ends the album, and speaks about strong independent women and their mislabelling as ‘psycho’. Again like “Kings And Queens”, there’s a lot that Ava speaks about on this song on the verified commentary on genius- so I’m just going to end this part of the review by pointing you all to that and you can read it to your heart’s content.
I think the number one thing is just having patience because it took me over 10-15 years, maybe 15 years, to make it to where I am right now, and it’s not an overnight thing. With Sweet and Psycho, it felt like it to some people but you know a lot of those people didn’t know my story and I started out really young, and a lot of people don’t know this but it takes years and years to perfect something and the more you focus on one thing, the better you’re gonna be at that one thing
[my goal is] to inspire, to uplift and to help people get through hard times through lyrics and stuff. Like for ‘So Am I,’ I was actually on another Zoom and someone told me that they basically felt so overwhelmed with the message of ‘So Am I’ that they basically changed their whole life and made their life better because they feel like they can actually be proud of who they are. That made me tear up because this is why artists make music, especially for me, that’s the kind of message I want in my music, especially with ‘Who’s Laughing Now,’ with ‘Kings and Queens,’ with equality, and really not letting everyone treat you wrong, you know? And, having the strength to walk away from that situation.
Some would say that Ava Max is like the new Avril Lavigne. Or the new Lady Gaga, or the new Kesha. But for me I’d say that while Ava may draw inspiration from these artists and more, Heaven & Hell shows us that Ava can rock out and dance to poppy numbers, yet her ultimate goal is to give lyrics for us all to ponder over and to dwell upon. Not that those other artists don’t do that… but Ava is her own person and not the next ____ (fill in the blank!). Sure these songs may be catchy and sure these songs will make you dance… but at the end of the day if these songs aren’t saying something meaningful and aren’t giving us advice on how to live in this world… then what’s the point? There’s only so many songs you can sing about partying and drugs and alcohol… and Ava reminds us that in a world where we are right now isolated and physically away from each other, we need uplifting and we need inspiration right now. Heaven & Hell in my opinion dishes out encouragement and inspiration in spades, and it’s perfect for times like these. So as we try to decipher the many meanings on songs like each of the 15 in Heaven & Hell, let us remember that life is a journey full of mountain tops and valleys- and without the valley you can’t appreciate the mountain. Without the hard times you can never fully know and appreciate the good times; and Ava’s album explores this dichotomy of hating bad times but needing them too, quite well. Well done Ava, I can’t wait for hear what’s in store for you next!
3 Songs To Listen To: Naked, Who’s Laughing Now, So Am I
RIYL: Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Kesha, Dua Lipa, Halsey, Bebe Rexha