Avril Lavigne Makes a Millenial Pop Return With ‘Head Above Water’

Avril Lavigne is an artist inextricably tied to a specific era in music. Few songs better capture the spirit of early aughts pop than her breakthrough 2002 hit “Complicated.” Although she was originally groomed to become a country-pop sensation a la Shania Twain, teenage angst set in, and she wound up something altogether different — a pop punk star, with “punk” in the most parenthetical terms conceivable. She set the template for a slew of immediately accessible, slightly rebellious young female artists, and made an indelible mark on the mainstream trajectory. What form she might take in 2019 invited boundless speculation. In recent years, she’s battled a torturous bout with Lyme disease, along with a tumultuous relationship, and has coped partially by looking back to her Christian roots. Her latest album, “Head Above Water,” has consequently found a receptive audience in the world of Christian radio. It’s far from super-church, Jesus-rock fare, however, safely understated in its spiritual overtones. It’s an album about resilience and fortitude, and the punk element, if there ever were one, remains only in spirit. What you have is a fairly standard singer-songwriter album that surveys various musical styles in a way that manages overall to sound surprisingly cohesive and still relevant.  

The title track finds Lavigne at the piano, bellowing away at her most emotionally-charged — a prime example of pop as catharsis. When she soars during the chorus, the perennially angsty, slightly nasal quality that has always characterized her singing is especially pronounced, making one have to acknowledge the beyond-tired comparisons to Alanis Morissette that have always plagued her. Don’t take it the wrong way though — Lavigne seems to surpass her predecessor on this track in intensity, and there’s a certain authenticity audible in her voice that rarely makes its way into pop of such a generic strain. It’s understandable, considering that this song is the product of real suffering and resilience. Lavigne has explained that she penned the song “from my bed during one of the scariest moments of my life,” and that she was “praying to God for Him to help me just keep my head above the water… I grew closer to Him.“ Let’s hear it for Pascal’s wager.

On “Birdie,” Lavigne sings of  “a bird locked up in a cage called love,” and of someone who “clipped her wings when she was born to fly.” The lyrics concurrently express two of the album’s prevailing theme’s — the struggles to overcome a debilitating illness, and to liberate oneself from a toxic relationship. Lavigne’s music is rife with pop cliches. She uses the deadweight of “Oh-oh, oh-oh” refrains, like laughable advertisement jingles, to communicate sentiments whose gravity often belies the vapidity of the conveyance, but presumably it works for some. Fitting weighty subject matter to accessible, even cheery tunes can be a powerful way of conjuring conflicting emotions, when done with some irony. In this case, however, there appears to be no design behind it at all. The chorus of “so birdie, fly away” somewhat salvages it all, with its sweet simplicity. “I Fell In Love With the Devil” continues the relationship thread, and the same songwriting bag of tricks. This time, however, Lavigne’s “I-I-I-I-I” bit actually sounds quite heavenly. The song has barely started before Lavigne erupts into beaming, histrionic chorus. It’s impatient, formulaic pop for easily-satisfied, ADHD heartthrobs.

“Tell Me It’s Over” is a refreshing change from the suburban strip mall sonics that characterize the album at large. It features some vintage, Motown-type stylings, with tremolo guitars, waltz time, and horns — almost a very far removed Amy Winehouse vibe. Even the chords on this one add some sentimental depth that strays from the empty linearity of most the songs on the record. When the chorus erupts, it sounds like Lavigne again in her comfort zone, but taking bolder strides within those confines. Next, comes a stylistic detour, the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Dumb Blonde.” From the first syllable, it sounds like some cheerleader fare, with Lavigne chanting “I ain’t no dumb blonde” with peppy, spirited attitude. Needless to say, this is all pretty ironic, and it works remarkably well, even if a bit cringeworthy at first, from its over-the-top silliness. The quasi-rapped lines from Lavigne are delivered with those eighties / early nineties, cartoonishly exaggerated hip-hop inflections. It might be the album’s catchiest song, albeit in a very kitschy way. One might expect a collaboration between Minaj and Lavigne to be excruciatingly awkward and forced, but with the way worlds have collided over the last decade and change, this is no longer the case. Just consider the bubblegum nature of Minaj’s 2012 megahit “Starships.” “Dumb Blonde” builds on the same aesthetic, and pulls it off.

“It Was In Me” brings us back to Earth, with Lavigne at the piano, dour and troubled, over atmospheric “ah-ah” vocals” and the most safely tasteful and accessible strings. Again, you can sense the generic chorus coming, and you have to plead to god with all the faith that Lavigne has expressed thus far in  this record that she’ll spare you a few more moments but alas, the inevitable torment comes right on cue. What follows is a good song for looking at the ground and shaking your head, then staring at the sky, flailing your arms, and gushing tears — a bit like R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” rewritten for the archetypal teenage girl. Fittingly, one lyric is “Let me feel young when I’m older,” a wish that Lavigne’s music certainly seems to manifest.

“Souvenir” is another giddy, love-drunk outpouring, but a more upbeat cut. Whereas many of the other songs are cheapened by their triteness, this song manages to effectively convey the essence of juvenile infatuation, expressing the crazed desperation to cling to a relationship, with the lyrics, “Can I keep you as a souvenir? / Can I take your shirt to dry my tears?” In this case, the adolescent nature of the sound is integral to conveying the sentiment, in a tradition extending back to the days of Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss.” Next, “Crush” sees Lavigne heading down more vaguely R&B-informed avenues, without the unbecoming affectations that often typify such excursions. It shows her venturing beyond her usual vocal range, and pulling it off swimmingly. One would expect the title to just describe a typical “crush” on someone, but it goes further, with Lavigne pleading, “Don’t crush me.” There’s a shift in perspective from all the earlier talk of taking charge, as Lavigne now sings, “I’ll let you take the wheel, my heart is yours to steal.”

“Goddess” is a gleeful celebration of being appreciated for one’s true worth. It’s an infectious ditty, save for an egregious WTF moment in the chorus when Lavigne attempts to rhyme “bananas” with “pajamas.” She isn’t British, and she isn’t fooling anyone. She adopts a damsel-in-distress posturing, with lyrics like “I was lost ’til you found me,“ and delves deeper into this on “Bigger Wow,” singing, “You could show up at my front door / On a white horse, I’ll be ready.” This song, more than any other, succeeds in capturing the feeling of being head over heels in love, with vivid lines that have to make one smile, like “We can jump out of an airplane / We could fall like we’re confetti,” and “We can light up all of Vegas / And we never will unplug it.”

Near the end of the album comes “Love Me Insane,” with it’s refrain of “Lo-lo-love me,” the recurrent format has gotten really, really stale. How long can one be expected to endure this shtick of repeated truncated syllables, seriously? At least, it’s cohesive. Lavigne brings it all to a climax on “Warrior,” declaring, “I won’t give up, I will survive, I’m a warrior” over triumphant strings. The album has shuttled freely between feelings of strength and vulnerability, and it’s telling that the final utterance is one of unshakable mettle. Lyme disease is no joke — and one has to hand it to Lavigne for overcoming the illness with flying colors. Moreover, she has achieved something commendable with this album, by crafting a set of songs that retain the spectre of her distinctive voice without reverting to the pitiful self-parodying nostalgia that characterizes the work of countless artists associated with era-specific sounds. It’s an album merciless in its embrace of clichés, but this is pop music of the poppiest strain after all, so that’s hardly a weakness.

Head Above Water” is available Feb. 15 on Apple Music.