Album Review: Avril Lavigne – ‘Head Above Water’

Avril Head Above Water

She spent four years out of the spotlight and it’s been almost six years since her last album, but Avril Lavigne is finally back.

While some music fans like myself may have just blindly assumed that Lavigne was taking her sweet time in between albums—especially since she’d been saying new material was coming since 2016—she revealed late last year that she had suffered a particularly debilitating few years since being diagnosed with Lyme disease. Coming off her last tour in 2014, she repeatedly suffered from extreme exhaustion and other symptoms, but her doctors explained it as merely dehydration and overworking herself. As things got worse, she finally went to see a Lyme specialist and it was only then when everything came into focus. While she had revealed her diagnosis to People magazine in April 2015, she had been quietly suffering from the illness for the better part of the last four years. It left Lavigne practically bedridden for two of those years, and at one point she was convinced she was dying. “When you go through something like that, you realize how fulfilling simple things are — things I could do anymore, like being able to get up in the morning and go to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee,” she told People last week. “It taught me patience; it taught me being more present. That was a beautiful lesson.”

After too many years away from music (marking her first real break from the limelight since she skyrocketed to fame as the Pop Punk Princess in the early 2000s, becoming one of the highest-selling artists of the decade as well as the third highest-selling Canadian artist of all-time, behind only Celine Dion and Shania Twain), Lavigne made her long-awaited return with the release of her song “Head Above Water” last September, the lead single from her upcoming sixth studio album. The song’s lyrics deal heavily with her battle with Lyme disease and describes how she felt when she had essentially believed she was dying. “Music really lifted me up and made me feel better,” she says. “I was able to take a hard time in my life and make the best out of a circumstance that was I was going through … At first I didn’t know I was making an album — I just naturally turned to songwriting in a time of healing.” It also renewed her faith in her higher power. “I’m a very spiritual person, and I definitely did turn to God during that experience.”

With everything she’s been through, including her divorce from her second husband Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback) in 2015, Lavigne’s forthcoming new album was already expected to be an emotional rollercoaster. But Head Above Water is neither a break-up album nor a make-up one (she insists she and Kroeger parted amicably, and she thanks him in the credits for “beginning this album with [her] and seeing it through to the end”). While it may seem easy to assume that in this era Avril Lavigne is her most personal and emotional, this isn’t the first time she’s tossed in some emotional bangers to accompany her pop-punk persona. The Guardian writes, “She sold millions as a teenager, but now the Canadian is nude on her album cover to prove she is a serious singer-songwriter.” It’s not true, and this is far from the first time Avril Lavigne has proven she is a serious singer-songwriter (not to mention that it’s not like she posed nude on the album cover to prove anything, get outta here with that misogyny). It started right from the beginning with her second studio album Under My Skin (2004), an alternative rock and post-grunge effort. In fact, on her fourth studio album Goodbye Lullaby (2011)—following the large pop success of The Best Damn Thing and its highly successful pop singles in 2007—Lavigne was at her most personal and emotional, producing an album of almost entirely acoustic and stripped down ballads that tug at your heartstrings, delivering possibly the best work of her career. But that album received mixed reviews from critics, with many appreciating its introspective nature but criticizing its subdued sound and lyrical content. Two years later in 2013, Lavigne re-emerged with Avril Lavigne, her self-titled fifth studio album, her first and only release under a new deal with Epic Records. The tone was the polar opposite of Goodbye Lullaby, incorporating pop, punk, and rock elements to make an almost entirely upbeat album that was clearly designed to match the sales of her earlier work. If Goodbye Lullaby was introspective and mature, Avril Lavigne was purposely immature and trying too hard to quite literally not let Lavigne grow up for the sake of selling pop music—the songs are good, but it’s hard to listen to “Here’s to Never Growing Up” or “Bitchin’ Summer” without getting a sense of been there, done that.

And now, nearly six years later, we finally have Head Above Water, Lavigne’s much-anticipated sixth studio effort. It’s a wonder if Lavigne could have continued to see large success on any scale if she had again re-emerged with her somewhat “signature” pop-punk songs with immature lyrics for her new album, but that was far from the case. As far as comeback singles go, “Head Above Water” is everything we could have asked for from Avril Lavigne, and even reaffirmed her status as one of Canada’s highest-selling artists of all-time as well as the era-defining star 2000s children remember her best as. In other words, Lavigne might have taken time off, but her legacy didn’t. She followed up with the album’s second single in December, “Tell Me It’s Over,” which will surely go down as one of Lavigne’s best songs. Excellent production with soul vibes reminiscent of Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, “Tell Me It’s Over” confirmed that Lavigne wasn’t playing no games with this new album, because she’s got nothing left to lose. Structurally, Head Above Water is very satisfying as an Avril Lavigne album. The first half has some emotional, sometimes melancholy tracks clearly dealing with her personal struggles (a particular highlight is “It Was in Me,” a song about growing up and learning that what we search for to make us feel fulfilled is always within ourselves). But after that, it’s as if the album has popped an antidepressant and we’re reading for some new, upbeat bangers from Lavigne. Another song that will surely go down as one of her best is “Dumb Blonde” (thankfully, the album does not include the atrocious Nicki Minaj version released as a single last week), during which she reminds us to not underestimate her—she’s a babe, she’s a boss, and she’ll be our icon. The production of “Dumb Blonde” is also reminiscent of some of her earlier albums, which is a nice touch for those of us who have been listening to Lavigne for her entire career (if I may borrow a comment from YouTube, “this sounds like the credits of a 2006 movie.” But, if this were 2006, “Dumb Blonde” probably would’ve been produced by Dr. Luke, so I’m grateful it’s not 2006!) It’s refreshing and it’s empowering.

For those of us who have grown up listening to Avril Lavigne, Head Above Water feels like the natural next step for Lavigne in her progressive evolution as an artist. Whatever mood she’s in, she has never sounded so confident or vocally stronger. And it’s a reminder that this has always been the Avril Lavigne we’ve known and loved, who can deliver both upbeat jams and emotionally powerful ballads. “Souvenir” sounds like a sequel to any number of songs on her last album, her half-yodel on “Love Me Insane” is a hook in itself, and “Bigger Wow” is destined to become a summer jam. If anything, Lavigne reminds us on Head Above Water that she’s much more compelling and far less generic as an adult singing with genuine emotion (it is in fact a reminder, because this far from the first time she’s expressed a more mature, introspective side). Turmoil has always given Avril Lavigne some of her best work, and I’m ready to soak up every ounce of this beautiful album she has finally given us. I only hope it won’t be another six years before we hear from her again.

Rating: 9/10

Jeffrey’s favorites from Head Above Water: “Head Above Water,” “Birdie,” “I Fell in Love With the Devil,” “Tell Me It’s Over,” “Dumb Blonde,” “It Was in Me,” “Souvenir,” “Goddess,” and “Bigger Wow”

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