Album Review: Avril Lavigne - 'Head Above Water'


Here’s the thing about an Avril Lavigne song: you either love it or you hate it. The musical equivalent of Marmite, if you will. In a career which has seen her struggle to move beyond teen-popstar, it’s understandable that some people might be reluctant to listen to a singer who chants about not liking someone’s girlfriend and collaborates with Hello Kitty on a track which, while admittedly a bop, lacked any substance past messy Japanese-fetishization. At 34-years-old, it was time for the angsty Canadian pop-princess to grow up.

On her sixth studio album, Head Over Water, Avril Lavigne has flourished. Marking her first album in five years, it’s also her first since overcoming Lyme disease – a condition that nearly took her life and left her bedbound. To add to an already turbulent couple of years, it comes after the breakdown in her marriage to Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger. No doubt, it’s been a rough patch for Lavigne – but if her new release is anything to go by, she’s come back from it all stronger than ever.

Title track 'Head Above Water' opens up the 12-track release with a swift kick to the teeth. It's intense and bold, with crisp, soaring vocals that are lifted by a string-heavy instrumental. But behind one of the strongest vocal performance of her career, the Canadian songstress is building up to expose her vulnerability, pleading at the song's bridge: "God, keep my head above water / I lose my breath, at the bottom / come rescue me, I'll be waiting / I'm too young to fall asleep". It's equal parts devastating and uplifting, and the perfect place to start for the complex journey Avril has planned for listeners.

String-heavy instrumentals and powerful vocal prowess return for 'Birdie' and 'I Fell in Love with the Devil'. But both tracks pale in comparison to the opener; tainted by painfully melodramatic and, at times, childish lyricism. But Lavigne has built her career on her own brand of juvenile melodrama, so perhaps there was no escaping  it.

If you were dubious about the track-listing 'Dumb Blonde (ft. Nicki Minaj)', have no fear - the unlikely pair work fantastically together. Lavigne takes centre stage to give two fingers to those who underestimated her, in a performance that harks back to the sassily-chanted clap-back lyricism fans grew to love on her 2007 hit 'Girlfriend'. However, slotted as it is between so-so ballads 'Tell Me It's Over' and 'It Was In Me', its position in the release jarrs, taking away from two already mediocre songs and sticking out like a sore thumb for its playful nature.

Lavigne's notorious "yeah-e-yeah” hook returns on 'Souvenir', a track which stands tall for its simplistic sweetness. 'Crush' and 'Goddess' follow a similar vein: unembellished ballads that showcase those Avril's staggering vocals while utilising some utterly addictive hooks. Makes you wonder why she ever had to go and make things so complicated, eh?

And it's these playful, unapologetically pop-hits that really make Head Above Water. On 'Bigger Wow' and 'Love Me Insane', Lavigne shrugs off the shackles of melodrama for even more infectious pop-hooks; a delicious zest to cut through an album which is tackling pretty heavy trauma. Making a body of work that deals with tragedy toe a line between exhausting and taking itself seriously is a big task and for the most part? Avril's nailed it.

Head Above Water ends with the same exuberant energy as its opening. Parting track 'Warrior' boasts a stunning instrumental while Lavigne triumphantly assures fans that "I'm a warrior / I fight for my life". It's neatly bookended, enough to gloss over the few missteps that came along the way and stand as the pop-punk princess’s victorious return.

Words by Madeleine Jane Dunne