Review Summary: Thank God for nostalgia - it gives worth to Avril's early work.
I discovered Avril Lavigne in 2004, and I was not impressed. Her music never seemed very special to me. At the tender age of 10 it seemed to me that pop was stupid and noisy, and I couldn’t understand why the radio kept playing “Complicated”.
Nevertheless, perhaps mostly due to a shortage of exposure, I made room in my ancient mp3 player for Let Go
, and listened to it occasionally throughout my youth – a practice that endured, inexplicably, throughout my teenage years and continues with alarming consistency in my young adulthood. Since I still don’t gape in awe at her work, I can only write off my bewilderment by admitting that I like her stuff because I grew up listening to her. Since practically everyone in my generation is familiar with her music (and most to a far greater extent than they’d like to admit), I do not believe I am alone in such admissions. As a prominent member of a group of artists I dub the 21st Century Nostalgia Crew, Avril Lavigne, despite her subsequent radical efforts at reconstructing her image, will always best be remembered at the rock chic with the attitude and the bold open-confessional pop of her debut – and hence, sadly, like a great deal of said Crew, any of her later efforts are usually looked upon with disdain, criticized as lacking that special something that made her early works special. Like the very concept of nostalgia itself, maturity and progress is far more criticized in their works than in those of most other artists, which is a shame when their new stuff actually turns out good. Under My Skin
was an album that faced these very circumstances. It wasn’t groundbreaking, and poor Avril took quite abit of s**t for it, but I sometimes wonder if it should not have been as critically appreciated as it was commercially.
A sensible direction for any reinvention is maturity, and Under My Skin
finds Avril more opinionated and defensive than before, which, given that she was 17 in her debut, was quite a typical progression of her work; a deeper sense of introspection and inquisition replaces the fierce identity of Let Go
, and Ms Lavigne’s sophomore release benefits largely from it. Jumping straight into darker tones with pop-rock commendable enough to annul any negative connotations of the term, the haunting tones and hard edges of the opening two tracks prove a considerable effort in the direction of maturity. These aren’t tunes penned singlehandedly by an inexperienced teenage musician in her room. Obvious efforts are made at a full complete sound as Avril and co. stray closer to an alternative rock sound than they have and probably ever will, furnishing the album with one of her better artistic endeavors to date. With the sophistication of her sound recognition must be given to her backing band. In Under My Skin
, the boys display the capacity to act, at the very least, as tasteful embellishments on tracks that, on their own, would merely have been decent acoustic numbers – Who Knows
is most definitely better simply because of the attitude in the intro, and Freak Out
is one of the better examples in mainstream music of when overdriven guitars and airy hollow synths actually work well with a melodious chorus. My Happy Ending
, an anthem of nostalgia, would not retain a fraction of its catchiness when stripped down; half the energy of the song emanates from the snare drums alone and the bright neon pseudo-80s-rock tones in the chorus compliments the hook-laden melody beautifully. While they aren’t outstanding, or even impressive, Avril’s band achieves something here that is nigh impossible to find in studio bands: they compliment her well enough that every track here is most definitely better off for their having had their input.
The importance of Avril’s artistic progression to the worth of her sophomore release is, unfortunately, most evident due to the fact that the worst of the album is when she regresses. Often an artist sells out not by buying completely into the mainstream, but taking a cheap bastardization of their sound and actually using it in an attempt to further commercial appeal. Instances of this in Under My Skin
prove everything bad about said behavior when songs are full of attitude but, unlike some of her earlier work (“Sk8er Boi”?), quite devoid of sincerity. Sometimes it may seem high-handed to criticize subject matter in pop music, but in He Wasn’t
it is absolutely warranted. Ms Lavigne’s lyrics have never really been her forte, but those in this track (what happened to my Saturday/Monday’s coming, the day I hate) with their Rebecca Black-esque banality, coupled with the disgusting attitude with which she spits her words, make it quite horrific – and that’s just in the verses, the bratty of rebellion of which is contextually tied so loosely to the crowd-spirited quasi-philosophy of the bridge that it makes the track perhaps the most ridiculous she’s ever recorded. Now, this is a song that actually does
feel like it was penned singlehandedly by an inexperienced teenage musician in her room. The fact alone that said track was released as a single may have brought the album several notches down in worth, as it makes a convincing argument for the idea that Lavigne was pressured to create music that cashed in on her old image, and failed miserably in the attempt. Forgotten
, a track which sounds like Avril’s conceptual interpretation of Amy Lee, falls prey to a far less cataclysmic flaw but one that is likewise borne from a mistaken sense of identity – it’s too brash, upfront and obviously for its own good, and just doesn’t feel like something she’d write, making it incongruent with the rest of the record.
I’ll be the first to admit that the dissection of the musical and instrumental merits of Under My Skin
here may somewhat have missed the point with her music, given that the reason why Avril Lavigne hadn’t, at this point, been written off as cheap pop is, quite frankly, her voice – it alone has prevented her from being labeled as just another teen singer-songwriter with a barely passable voice-and-guitar combo. She’s no Shania Twain or, God-forbid, Celine Dion, but, though not always apparent, Avril does to justice to Canada’s distinguished history of commendable songstresses. Clean vocals with as much strength behind them as hers are often taken for granted but aren’t common. Her clear soprano at its best is a commendable vehicle for emotion, and, corny as it may sound, it is on her more self-reflective and personal tracks that her vocals find their true power – the vulnerability behind How Does It Feel
lends her vocals in the song’s final chorus an astonishing amount of strength, and her sorrowful tone in Nobody’s Home
does more than anything else in the track to make it believable. While not the best lyricist around, as earlier mentioned, Avril’s voice often makes up for the deficit; tastefully paired with strong hooks and catchy melodies her vocals make songs like Don’t Tell Me
, with its otherwise less-than-stellar and uncomfortably personal lyrics, sound honest and sincere enough to get a message across while actually convincing people that she’s got something worthwhile to sing about. What’s commendable about her is that, unlike many artists whose greatest asset by far is their voice, she isn’t self-indulgent and doesn’t flaunt hers like an insecure novice, but rather prefers in this album to use it as an instrument in a band effort, which makes it all the more effective and far less in-your-face than it could have been.
At its best, Avril’s voice is heartbreakingly pure (the B-side “Why” from her earlier work being a perfect testament to this), and though it’s been jaded slightly in Under My Skin
, sadly stripping it of some of its youthful charm, it is at this point in her career that I feel she really puts her heart and soul into her music, before she became Mrs. Whibley and started having something to prove (who the hell tells a guy that she’s the best damn thing that his eyes have ever seen). Nevertheless, it has always been quite apparent to me that, were I to have discovered her and this album off the airwaves today I probably would never have given her music a second glance, but whether that says something about her mettle as a singer-songwriter or my diminuitive attention span and propensity to prematurely judge pop music is a point of great personal contention. If it be the latter, then thank God for nostalgia, for, like the worth of Avril’s early work, it is a far more accurate and objective definition of good music than that which my critical opinion can give me.