The more you think about it, the less sense it makes to spin Avril Lavigne as a pop-rock artist anymore. In the same vein as Pink or Kelly Clarkson, there was a distinctly manufactured feeling towards those pivots in the early 2000s, only underlined even more heavily by a cumulatively-assembled mall-punk image and the fact that the biggest singles pushed from those earlier albums either pulled drastically from the pop-punk of the time, or could tap into a very broad picture of teen angst that, looking back on them now, could feel pretty underdeveloped. Granted, Lavigne at least had the feeling of being a bit more genuine than the others at times, but the gradual shift towards pure pop feels like a good move after a bit of thought, breaking out of the rigid mould of teen-pop-rock starlet and into something a bit more malleable to fit an older, wiser artistic persona. And while the argument could be made that Lavigne hasn’t made the most of this potential (or in the case of songs like Hello Kitty, outright squandered it), Head Above Water has at least shown signs of a better formula. As easily as the title track could be dismissed as another colourless self-esteem anthem, its underscoring of Lavigne’s hiatus from music and her struggle with Lyme disease lends it a lot more weight, and at least begins to formulate the notion of this album having a bit more to it.
But then again, that’s just one song, and nine times out of ten with pop albums, that sort of extrapolation has very little bearing on the final product. Indeed, Lavigne’s own track record has proven that consistency in that area is not here strong suit, and Head Above Water unfortunately sees that trend continue. It is a more measured album, but only in the way it has fewer glaring embarrassments than previous, and it is more reflective of her own struggles in the past few years, but it does so broadly enough to apply to whatever situation the audience deems applicable. Basically, it’s the flat, expected template of pop from about three or four years ago, and the fact that’s all it is, is enormously disappointing.
To be fair though, Lavigne has never been all that experimental in the past and has still managed to land a couple of hits in whatever style she moves into, and it’s rarely different on Head Above Water. They primarily come in the her more contemplative, personal moments, like the title track or the escape from a period of creative stifling on Birdie. But even then, to call these much more detailed or emblematic of an identifiably personal bent would be seriously clutching at straws, especially when a good deal of this can be instantly attributed to any context that involves rising against some nebulous odds. That’s not to say that there’s no real-life resonance there, but when it comes to incredibly generalised self-esteem anthems like It Was In Me or ballads like Goddess, it’s hard to imagine them as genuine cathartic vehicles above safe pop crossovers. And of course, it wouldn’t be an Avril Lavigne album without some painfully hackneyed attempt at sass, of which the style-over-substance empowerment of Dumb Blonde neatly fits the bill, complete with a Nicki Minaj guest verse that couldn’t feel less suited to this album.
At least there’s a bit of life here, though; besides it with its marching-band percussion and swinging horns and the incredibly shallow but solid enough teen-pop of Bigger Wow, Head Above Water refuses to let go of overpoweringly drab tones to sound grown-up and portentous, when really it makes for an album that runs on a fraction of the vigour and colour it should. Really, it’s best ideas are used up within the first few tracks; the title track and I Fell In Love With The Devil work the most as the sweeping power ballads, and the bluesy waltz cadence of Tell Me It’s Over is probably the best deviation from the norm, but otherwise, Head Above Water’s momentum is torn asunder by both a lack of ideas and a decent way to utilise them. The same colourless, percussive power ballad formula is recycled virtually in its entirety on It Was In Me and Warrior, and Love Me Insane tries to recreate Tell Me It’s Over’s sway in its stately strings but feels all the more stiff and clipped when doing so. There’s a real dearth of memorable instrumental passages all across the album, with the majority of them only sticking out because of how supremely drained they feel. Say what you want about Lavigne’s misguided pop experiments, but they at least tend to have energy and character; so much of Head Above Water resorts to dragging itself along and lingering on its least interesting moments whenever it can.
And that unfortunately does bring up some larger implications about Avril Lavigne and whether she’s capable of surviving in a modern pop scene. As much as the aim with this album is likely to find some favour with an older, more reserved crowd in music that feels just that, that’s not a suitable excuse for simply being dull, and yet Head Above Water treats it as exactly that. It’s even more disappointing when considering that this could have been a more much darker, more interesting album without those concessions made, and if it was driven purely on the sense of catharsis that only ever feels briefly in view here. It doesn’t take much convincing to draw the conclusion that it would’ve been far more captivating, instead of an album called Head Above Water that’s struggling to stay afloat.
For fans of: Kelly Clarkson, Rachel Platten, Pink
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Head Above Water’ by Avril Lavigne is out now on BMG Rights Management.