As I sat down to listen to Head Above Water, it occurred to me that Avril Lavigne’s become a bit of a wild card over the past few years.
Over the course of her nearly twenty-year career, the former Canadian punk princess has tried her hand at Alanis-esque post-grunge, candy-coloured pop, and everything in between. I’ve been a Lavigne fan since I was an angsty eight-year-old, and lately every album announcement has left me breathlessly wondering, What’s this one going to sound like?
Head Above Water leans more towards adult contemporary than Lavigne’s previous releases, although there’s quite a bit of stylistic diversity from song to song. The spiritual title track, written about her recent battle with Lyme Disease, its one of Avril’s most mature and beautifully written to date. “Tell Me It’s Over” is a stylish ballad with vintage girl group flair. “Dumb Blonde” (the album’s sole purely pop track) is a bubble gum-smacking earworm, and “Bigger Wow” recalls the summery, acoustic pop of 2011’s Goodbye Lullabye.
The record’s centrepiece, “It Was In Me,” feels like a belated sequel to her breakout hit “I’m With You.” Recalling her debut record Let Go both in vocal delivery and tone, the song has Lavigne turning inward for validation after a lifetime of seeking it through material things: “I searched up on the mountain tops, it wasn’t there / I drove a Maserati, no fulfillment there / I run around the whole damn world, to get back here.”
Head Above Water seems more cautious than her last record (2013’s Avril Lavigne), which gleefully ricocheted from hard rock to dance-pop to the moody alternative and bratty pop-punk of her heyday. But this record benefits from sincerely-delivered, deeply personal lyrics, as well as light production that gives the instruments room to breathe and anthemic choruses that showcase her voice.
Avril’s at her best when writing about the darker side of love, ranging from the constricting affairs she flees on dramatic ballads “Birdie” and “I Fell In Love With The Devil,” to the new relationship jitters of “Souvenir” and “Crush.” (The latter song revolves around what I thought was a fairly clever play on words, having a clearly smitten Lavigne plead, “Don’t crush me” to a new boyfriend).
The songs where her love is less conflicted (blissful acoustic ditties “Goddess” and “Love Me Insane”) feel more like filler, although “Goddess” benefits from understated catchiness and lyrical intimacy: “I thought I knew about love – I admit it / I was lost till you found me.”
The album ends on a high note with “Warrior.” Co-written by Lavigne’s ex-husband, Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger, the song is a sweeping power ballad in the vein of “Keep Holding On” (a Best Damn Thing standout that was used as the theme for teen fantasy flick Eragon). This one is similarly epic in scope, with lyrics about donning armour and “marching through the darkness ’til the morning light.” After the rough few years she’s had, there’s something badass about Lavigne boasting “I’ve got a whole damn army!”
While not as delightfully eclectic as some of her other works, Head Above Water represents a musical step forward for Lavigne. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.
Title: Head Above Water
Artist: Avril Lavigne
- Head Above Water
- I Fell In Love With The Devil
- Tell Me It’s Over
- Dumb Blonde
- It Was In Me
- Bigger Wow
- Love Me Insane