From the soft-focused, impeccably styled, tasteful cover photo -- better suited for Harper's Bazaar than a pop album -- to the haughty implications of the title, Hilary Duff's third album, Dignity, appears to be the teen star's self-styled, self-conscious adult album. Almost too adult, actually, since the packaging makes it seem like Hilary skipped over her wild, restless years and headed straight toward polished adult contemporary blandness. But, as Bo Diddley once sang, you can't judge a book by looking at its cover, and Dignity isn't quite what it seems. To be sure, it's an adult album, but it's a young adult album, driven almost entirely by gleaming electronic beats, consisting almost entirely of dance songs, and never once seeming as stuffy as that ill-conceived cover. While it is never as stylish and brittle as the cold, robotic funk of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Dignity surely strives to be a happier, friendlier spin on that electro-pop sound -- dance-pop for people who never set foot in clubs, which also means that even if the rhythms are pushed to the forefront, the tracks are built upon a strong songwriting foundation that, thanks to teen pop impresario Kara DioGuardi, are sturdy, hooky, and memorable. It's the kind of music made be somebody who knows what's fashionable but isn't by any means a trend-setter, but that, in a nutshell, is who Hilary Duff is: she's not the coolest kid around, but she's the popular girl who's still friendly to the misfits, nerds, and burnouts, so everybody still likes her even if it's at times begrudging.
That persona shines strongly on Dignity, which bears a stronger autobiographical imprint than almost any other teen pop album of the 2000s. Despite that glossy photo, Hilary comes across as contradictory and conflicted as any 20-year-old in the throes of a messy, public breakup would. At its core, Dignity is the sound of the most popular girl at school shedding her long-time boyfriend and her old friends and starting life all over again. The ex-friends she takes completely unveiled swipes at are Lindsay and Britney, who earn Hilary's disdain as they party away in the Hollywood Hills, while the boyfriend is Good Charlotte's Joel Madden -- and knowing all this via tabloids and gossip blogs actually makes Dignity's literal lyrics more interesting, since when she sings about being tempted by dangerous older men or rediscovering a part of her she lost or even fending off stalkers, they play like confessions, not inventions. Having these journal entries married to sleek wannabe club beats gives this an appealingly fresh, contemporary feel, as the sound matches the ideas behind the lyrics; it's the sound of teen pop growing old in the late 2000s. Too bad, then, that Hilary still sounds like a girl. She doesn't quite sound like the spunky Lizzy McGuire, but her voice is thin, sweet, fragile, not at all like a woman, so Dignity can occasionally feel like she's trying on her big sister's clothes as she imagines what her life will be like once she's all grown up (which also gives the Madden back-story a real creepy predatory undercurrent). Even if it's hard not to wish Hilary sounded closer to her age, with this small voice she still sounds relatable and, most of all, likeable -- perceptions that are only enhanced by her determined desire to hold onto her dignity in this tabloid age. She may still be caught between childhood and womanhood, but on Dignity she makes some serious headway into turning into a mature recording artist, which makes this an effective, strangely endearing album.