Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: Head Above Water • Avril Lavigne



When Avril Lavigne returned to music last year with "Head Above Water," it seemed she finally may have been forced into adulthood by an unfortunate source. The Canadian singer-songwriter was years deep in a battle against chronic Lyme disease, inspiring her to abandon her forever young mentality and acknowledge her mortality and faith on the pop-rock empowerment ballad. Although Christian music was a strange wave for Lavigne, a longtime self-declared rock chick, to ride back into the spotlight for the first time in a half-decade, the track proved that she could pen an age-appropriate track without losing her charm. But old habits die hard, you know.

Lavigne's sixth full-length record works against its title track, defaulting to her typical tropes. She always has been a conversational lyricist, as if she sets her diary entries or scrapped story ideas to melodies. It served her well as an angst-ridden teenage icon but has become her damning mainstay as an adult. And despite soaking in a bath of power ballads on Head Above Water, Lavigne too often ruins her own touching melodies with thin metaphors or elementary phrasing – like when she guns for a "bird in a cage" parallel on the melodically-sound "Birdie" and sings, "He thinks I'm sexy in my pajamas. The more I am a hot mess, the more he goes bananas," on acoustic snoozer "Goddess."

Billed as a direct reflection of the past few years in her life, Head Above Water was assumed to follow its title track's narrative in detailing Lavigne's illness and divorce from Nickelback lead vocalist Chad Kroeger – a divorce so amicable that she collaborated with Kroeger on this record. What transpires, however, are tracks like "I Fell In Love With the Devil" and "Tell Me It's Over," jaded and dramatic as they rip apart her past relationship, and "Dumb Blonde," a jolting interruption of the record's flow. Protruding from the record like a broken bone, the bratty "Blonde" samples Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" and features Nicki Minaj on some variants of the track listing.

Since the drastic pop-punk shift in Lavigne's public persona on The Best Damn Thing, each Avril Lavigne record has tried to reconcile who she was first, who she was next, and who she wants to be now. To her credit, she conveys new intentions the most on Head Above Water, with her new love affair with pop-rock suiting her best on the title track and lighter, optimistic moments like "Souvenir" and "Bigger Wow." But the record is still served lukewarm, making it seem that Avril Lavigne will be forever chained to her worst musical habits, even when it matters most that she let them fall away to rebrand her artistry yet again.

Head Above Water is available now under BMG Rights Management.

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Maira Gall