Avril Lavigne’s ‘Avril Lavigne’: Album Review

It took five albums for Avril Lavigne to set aside the moody titles (Let Go, Under My Skin, Goodbye Lullaby) and just call her record Avril Lavigne. With most artists, that would accompany a canned statement about how it’s their most “authentic” or “organic” release yet, but Lavigne —  not particularly deft with the media training, so giddy and unserious in interviews — explained that she was just out of ideas. “I didn’t know what to call it,” she said in a recent interview. “I really couldn’t find a title to sum it up.” K!

The thing is, Avril Lavigne (out today, , on Epic Records) probably is the Avril-iest album of Avril’s career. It’s brimming with character, jagged with contradictions, deeply nostalgic, occasionally annoying, likably bratty and mostly great. A decade into her career, Lavigne has emerged as more of a high-concept, character-driven pop star (like Lana Del Rey) than her mallrat roots would suggest. Her shtick is about still being a teenager with messy eyeliner, riding her skateboard to the mall, even though she’s a grown-up, married (to celebrity goatee Chad Kroeger, no less), with a string of businesses and a real estate portfolio to rival any CEO; she’s still playing the part of a grungy kid.

Never mind that her chosen aesthetic isn’t even relevant anymore, that she isn’t even resonant with the teenaged listeners whose predecessors sang along to “Complicated,” who have found something honest and true in the referential cynicism of Lorde. Avril is carrying the torch for youth better than anyone her age or theirs, and the public isn’t paying an iota of attention. It’s strange and wonderful, this hyperbolic performance art piece devoted to developmental arrest, this hyperbolic performance art piece that nobody’s watching.

It’s also sad because at least half the songs on Avril Lavigne are excellent, in particular the first four tracks on the record, which form a sort of informal ode to youthful nostalgia that’s unmistakable in its intent. Sophomore single “Rock N Roll” packs a killer punch, its “We Will Rock You”-style beat and fucks-free lyrics like teenage punk-pop, even as the lyric, “Let ’em know that we’re still rock and roll” points to the fact that it’s actually a song about aging. “Here’s To Never Growing Up,” still one of the year’s best singles, drives the point home — it doesn’t get much more explicit than that title — while “17,” equally perfect, picks up where Katy Perry‘s “Teenage Dream” leaves off with its fizzy, buzzing look back on adolescence. The guitar loop on “Bitchin’ Summer” apes Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama,” while the thudding backbeat builds to a thrilling, gleaming last-day-of-school refrain. In that song, she and the object of her affection are like “high school lovebirds” and she’s picking him up at the liquor store; in “17,” she’s “flicking lighters just to fight the dark”; in “Growing,” it’s about “singing Radiohead at the top of our lungs.” These songs are peppered with vibrant little images, and they’re dangerously effective at evoking something marvelously painful.

Things mostly go south in the album’s less-effective middle third: The overwrought “Let Me Go,” featuring her husband Chad Kroeger, is a misstep — the place where his influence as the frontman of much-derided guitar rock band Nickelback shows the most — but “Give You What You Like” is a fantastically eerie paean to a miserable one-night-stand. The Marilyn Manson-assisted “Bad Girl” is catchy but shrill; likewise the shouty “Hello Kitty.” But it picks up again: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” is more pristine, shimmering pop-rock with a roaring, crunchy chorus, and the bouncy, jubilant “Sippin’ On Sunshine” almost out-roars “Roar.” “Hello Heartache,” with its skittering backbeat and earworm chorus, sounds like something that Skylar Grey would kill to cut, while “Falling Fast” is airy and elegant, the most outright sweet thing here, and “Hush Hush” is lovelier still, with a chorus that crashes in out of nowhere, all wistful sentiment. Avril Lavigne is at least two-thirds terrific.

I have no idea where Avril Lavigne fits into the pop landscape in 2013, and given that her album sales have declined exponentially with each successive release since her 2002 debut Let Go sold 18 million copies around the world — she hasn’t cracked the Top 10 since 2007’s “Girlfriend” — it’s tempting to say that there isn’t much space for her at all, except a nostalgic one. Then again, on this album, she trades in nostalgia better than anyone, so perhaps that’s exactly right.

The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “17” desperately needs a proper single treatment, but maybe it would be better to wait until the spring to do it — if ever a song were destined for summer singalongs, it’s this one.

Best Listened To: Unironically.

Full Disclosure: Even with all the misfires, this might still be my favorite pop album of the year. It’s up there, anyway.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Sam Lansky