Canadian pop rock star Avril Lavigne has returned with her first studio album in close to six years. The singer practically went into hibernation after her 2013 self-titled release, with her deteriorating health eventually leading to a Lyme Disease diagnosis. Lavigne’s healing and continual overcoming of her illness was what inspired new release Head Above Water, the album a testament to her courage and resilience as well as a return to her deepest musical roots.
Fans have witnessed many changes in her style over the past few decades. Her 2000s punk origins were replaced with that of bratty cheerleader pop, which was subsequently followed by an album comprised of acoustic love songs. Head Above Water sees a step in yet another direction, though it carries hints of every era we’ve seen Lavigne navigate.
The most outstanding aspect of this new record is the vocal performance. Songs like title track Head Above Water and Birdie give life to parts of her voice that haven’t been heard before. It showcases her raw talent and ability whilst proving that an evolution has taken place, even if only vocally.
There are ‘big’ pieces consistently throughout the record. It’s refreshingly piano driven and relies heavily on the accompaniment of strings, a nostalgic element that brings forth memories of Lavigne’s stellar single When You’re Gone. There’s a presence that has been absent from previous records. Lavigne is passionate and engaged; continuously unapologetic in what could have potentially been a long awaited comeback release.
Sixties inspired moments like Tell Me It’s Over and Crush again offer a stunning vocal display. It’s impossible not to become emotional while listening to a performance that just continues to reach and expand, even when you’re positive Lavigne has reached her limit. She breaks through expectations and unleashes her capabilities over and over again. Tracks like Fell In Love With The Devil and Goddess tease well executed hooks and modern pop melodies, but that’s where the excitement stops.
Head Above Water is for the most part a cohesive effort, although the production feels overdone and confused at times. Where the record falls down is in its lyricism. Smaller negative aspects would be easier overlooked had Lavigne had something real to say, rather than relying heavily on platitudes and painfully cliched rhymes. There’s no sign of growth despite her time taken away from the industry, and Head Above Water oozes with lyrical immaturity.
Moments like Dumb Blonde and A Bigger Wow feel misplaced and childish, Lavigne clearly still holding onto the attitude that gained her so much success for albums like The Best Damn Thing. It’s fun, but only if you look past the lack of substance and direction.
Souvenir is one of the more perplexing tracks on the record. It presents as a country pop song, though the production steers it away from what could have been Lavigne’s take on a storyteller love song and instead showers it with unnecessary synths and electronic percussion. Love Me Insane only reaffirms that the singer is still writing songs from the perspective of her 16 year old self – only now her fans are older. And so is she.
Head Above Water is a glowing example of Lavigne’s immeasurable talent as a vocalist, which is probably the most disappointing thing of all. This record and its reoccurring pockets of potential could have been the catalyst for change; for the comeback we’ve been waiting for. Instead, it becomes a demonstration of an artist that either refuses to, or is unable, to evolve.