Album Review: Avril Lavigne’s ‘Head Above Water’

Avril Lavigne stages a triumphant return with Head Above Water. It’s been six years since the pop/punk princess released her last album – 2013’s self-titled. A lot has gone down in the interim, including a lengthy battle with Lyme Disease that the 34-year-old said left her fighting for her life. She opened up about the experience in a heartfelt letter to her fans. “Those were the worst years of my life as I went through both physical and emotional battles,” she confessed.

She also addressed that time head-on with the LP’s soaring title track. On it, she searches for the strength to carry on in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “God, keep my head above water. Don’t let me drown,” she begs. Intimate and raw, the rock-infused power ballad grows in power with every listen. Paired with a suitably epic video, the single rocketed into the Top 40 in Canada. If life were fair, this would have been a global smash.

After the vocal acrobatics and raw lyricism of its lead single, the era veered in unexpected (but enjoyable) directions with its next two releases – “Tell Me It’s Over” and the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Dumb Blonde.” The former is a retro breakup anthem inspired by some of music’s greatest divas. Despite being incredibly off-brand for the “Sk8er Boi” legend, Avril really delivers. There is so much replay factor with this catchy and relatable midtempo.

Meanwhile, the latter is a plucky pop/rap fusion that channels the Canadian’s brattiest material. Think “Girlfriend,” but blonder and with more of the Queen Of Rap. Over a drumline and driving beats, the unlikely duo hit back at their least-favorite stereotypes. “I ain’t no dumb blonde; I ain’t no stupid Barbie Doll,” Avril growls. “Watch me, watch me, watch me prove you wrong.” Toss in one of Nicki’s most fun verses in recent memory, and it is tailored for breakout success on radio.

However, the feisty banger is a clear outlier on the tracklist. While “Dumb Blonde” comes off as an attempt to get that quick and easy hit, its predecessors provide a more realistic glimpse at the album. Although sonically different, they lay the groundwork for what is a surprisingly cohesive listening experience lush with power balladry and sweetly crafted midtempos. Comprised of 12 songs, the LP clocks in under 45 minutes and features no shortage of quality material. So let’s dive in.

First up is “Birdie”: an ode to escaping the restraints of a toxic relationship. “This was written from a place of not allowing something to hold you back from your full potential,” Avril explained on Twitter. “It’s about breaking free & loving yourself enough to allow yourself to fly.” Opening with twinkling keys, it gradually grows in power before reaching an emotional peak on the bridge. “I ain’t your prisoner. You can’t chain me down no more. Goddamn, it’s gonna hurt. So fly away, little bird.”

Toxic love also inspired “I Fell In Love With The Devil.” This one features a plea for divine intervention and release from the unhealthy relationship. “I fell in love with the Devil, and now I’m in trouble.” Later, there is a desperate call for help. “Please, save me from this hell.” I cannot stress this enough: Vocals are served on the self-penned ballad. And tonally, it makes for a fitting transition into “Tell Me It’s Over,” which sees her reclaim control of a relationship as it collapses. If only “Tell Me It’s Over” into “Dumb Blonde” worked as well… That is a choice I’ll never understand.

Next up is a personal favorite – “It Was In Me.” After the youthful defiance of 2013’s “Here’s To Never Growing Up,” this is all about finding inner peace as a mature woman. It’s a wonder what a difference six years can make. “Now let me feel high when I’m sober. Let me feel young when I’m older. Let me feel proud when it’s over,” the former necktie aficionado belts. “I finally realized. All of this time, it was in me.” It’s the sort of song that could verge on being overly saccharine without the proper treatment. Luckily, it hits all the right notes.

It also practically begs to soundtrack Hollywood’s next coming-of-age film. Hopefully, that can happen in the near future. Speaking of blockbusters, “Souvenir” belongs right next to “Summer Nights” on a modern reworking of the Grease soundtrack. The shimmery bop is all about a summer fling that could become so much more. “Can I keep you as a souvenir, wish you were here,” 2019’s answer to the Pink Ladies pleads over a pretty production. Wistful and catchy, it’s a sing-along anthem that screams hit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see fans demanding a single treatment in the near future.

“Crush” features a similar brand of hesitant romantic optimism. Sonically, it could be a distant cousin of “Tell Me It’s Over” with another vaguely retro production. However, this one is a little schmaltzier as Avril prays that the apple of her eye won’t leave her brokenhearted. A happy ending comes through on follow-up track “Goddess.” It includes one of the most iconic pronunciations of “banana” in recorded history and some generally loved-up pronouncements about a relationship.

“He treats me like I’m a goddess. To be honest, honest, I didn’t know how bad that I want this,” she admits. The wave of romantic vibes crests on “Bigger Wow” and “Love Me Insane.” The former is one of the most distinctly pop moments on the tracklist, and the latter boasts an inescapable, sing-along chorus. However, both pale in comparison to the staggering album closer, “Warrior.”

One of the first songs she wrote for the LP, it is another lush power ballad in the style of “Head Above Water.” However, there is a slight thematic difference. While the opener is a plea for spiritual assistance, this is all about Avril’s inner strength. “I won’t bow, I won’t break. No, I’m not afraid to do whatever it takes,” she vows. “Cause I’m a warrior. I fight for my life. And I won’t give up, I will survive.” The swelling anthem closes the LP with a testament to all that she has overcome.

And it speaks to what has always drawn fans to Avril: her resilience. From the time of her debut, no setback has derailed the hitmaker. Head Above Water makes it clear this is still the case. Even more, it proves she is an artist worth keeping an eye on 17 years into her career. Vocally and lyrically, the release contains some of her best work to date. Sure, there are a few misses. But the album is largely a strong listen from start to finish. That’s enough for me to chalk it up as a win.

Score: 3.5/5

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