The album cover to Fefe Dobson's third studio album, Joy, is most likely symbolic. Picturing the young performer collapsed on her own stage, it's likely representative of the five years of drama that Dobson endured after her second album, Sunday Love, was ultimately shelved days before its release and Dobson was dropped from her label. In the time that Dobson was label-less, she was certainly keeping busy, still occasionally touring and songwriting, most prominently with Disney teen prodigy Selena Gomez. Though Dobson saw her career halt and found herself forced to work with artists who can hardly touch her in terms of talent, she never gave up -- and neither did her fans. After releasing two singles independently -- the ever so spunky "I Want You" and the slick and spicy "Watch Me Move" (very clearly a big f-you to her former label) -- she was re-signed to Island Records, and got an independent distribution deal with Universal at the same time. Dobson had gone from has-been to hot commodity. The question remains, is Joy a great album? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The album could have been a sappy collection of moody ballads, a collection of all the dark tunes that Dobson penned during her time without a label. However, if Dobson was ever not producing top-quality, charismatic pop/rock radio smash tunes, we would never know the difference. Dobson had a hand in writing each of these power numbers, which represent her strongest body of work to date. From lead single "Ghost" (co-written by Kara DioGuardi and produced by Kevin Rudolf) to the follow-up midtempo chart burner "Stuttering," Dobson proves she's on top of the pop market, with some immaculate writing and production that keep her fresh with the contemporaries who sprang up while she was away from the game. However, the strength comes in the non-singles, which slide farther from radio fodder and into a greasier, grittier set that is often too absent in pop music these days: Dobson bites back against her vices on "Thanks for Nothing" and sends a rival woman running on the Howard Benson-produced "You Bitch"; it's these tracks where Dobson's fire blazes strongest, and she catapults herself into the ranks of spitfire pop artists like Kelly Clarkson and P!nk. Not to mention, just when you think she's kept herself guarded, Dobson rips herself open on "Set Me Free," making it clear that the hardships she's endured because of the music business have truly left her scarred; it's these scars, however, that make her ballads so bruising and her spunk and charm so fresh and believable. Joy may not be such a cheerful album, but it stands to be an epic comeback for a genuinely talented pop artist who was shafted by the industry that would welcome her back with open arms, and that is definitely a joyous story.
by Matthew Chisling