Review Summary: Lavigne's best album is also the one which reveals her glass ceiling.
Avril Lavigne is far more punk now than she ever was back when people were playing air guitar to 'Sk8er Boi', a song which in spite of its knowingly aggressive tone was as inoffensive as pretty much all of Let Go
. For real controversy, read 'Girlfriend', a song so bitchy and provocative both in musical tendencies and in lyrical content that some people actually hated it and some people actually loved it. It doesn't matter that there were no skateboards in the video; it was far more daring than 'Complicated' pretended to be.
This suggestion tends to incite vociferous opposition to the assertion that something can be so bad it's good
but that's not the point - the point is that people talked about it. The lead single from Goodbye Lullaby
, 'What The Hell', sounds like 'Girlfriend's narrator's little sister saw rebellion and wrote a song about it too, but 'What The Hell' is not a suitable benchmark for the album it opens as the first full song; there is very little with that abrasive tone in the other twelve tracks. But it's better to be divisive than bland, right? That's what we said?
Actually, despite being the least insolent album Lavigne's ever recorded, it's also probably the first that lends itself to an extensive number of listens. It's a disarming listen from the very first notes, intro 'Black Star' twinkling in anticipation of its own build, and after 'What The Hell' has bulldozed the shit out of all that subtlety with its handclaps and gang vocals, the surprises just keep on coming. 'Push' has Lavigne doing her best Alanis Morisette impression; 'Wish You Were Here' (far from being a Pink Floyd cover) echoes Taylor Swift's tenderness; 'Everybody Hurts' (far from being an REM cover) sees her for perhaps the first time ever finding understated momentum
, at least for the first three minutes.
And the list goes on. None of these differences are revolutionary, but some of them do manage to contribute a lot to slight diversity in texture. A lot of the tracks on this record are acoustic and very few of them are rehashed versions of the same sappy ballad. And this is not even mentioning the beats
. 'Stop Standing There' is positively groovy with the strings buried deep beneath its fidgety drums! 'Push' in its mimicry of Alanis even borrows that intelligent, breezy way she has with rhythm and does it with actual style, too.
But man, is it disappointing. All this praise and yet, still, Lavigne finds herself with an end product which feels incomplete, and why? The words. The damn lyrics. Especially on songs as stripped-down as some of these, it becomes important to have something to say and a way to say it. Stepping out from behind the pretense of the rebellious costume and the bitchy costume, where does Avril, presumably a more natural Avril, go? I wish I could answer that question, because a majority of these songs fall into the void between meaningful and meaningless, that awkward hole between wanting to inspire emotion and being able to do it. 'I Love You', in particular, is a trite and excessively hackneyed and simple love song, but there are other tracks which meander or clunk in a similar fashion.
It genuinely saddens me to say it, because Goodbye Lullaby
demonstrates such class and potential at certain points, but not only is this the best album Lavigne has ever recorded, it's also arguably the best of which she's capable. Everything else is on top form and it exposes a weakness that before had always been able to hide behind its own arrogance. But all of this is conjecture; what's impossible to doubt is the sweetness of 'Darlin' and the ebb and flow of 'Remember When'. If you're all about heart-rending guitars and beautiful pianos and you can overlook the subpar words coming out of Lavigne's mouth, this is a genuinely excellent record, one which isn't a chore to sit through, and one whose ambition is hidden underneath the initial surprise but very definitely present. It is probably the least punk thing that will be released in the next decade, but that's what makes it such a great pop record. It's just a shame it's not much more.