Review Summary: All my life I've been good, but now...
One of the most curious aspects of Avril Lavigne’s career has been her reverse maturation. She wrote mostly grown-up pop songs across Let Go
and Under My Skin
, then steered into a bratty punk-rock phase for The Best Damn Thing
and parts of Goodbye Lullabye
. That isn’t to say that the quality was poor – the infusion of youth brought a dose of energy that was sorely missing – but still, it was odd to witness her pen innocent, poignant lyrics at age seventeen and then rapidly devolve into songs about Hello Kitty
and literally being a slut (‘Bad Girl’, courtesy of Marilyn Manson). After an entirely hit-or-miss self-titled album in 2013, she fell off the radar for six years – a long time for a pop star – and re-emerged with Head Above Water
, a record that seemingly screams “take me seriously” at its listeners.
It makes sense that Avril would strive for an image change. She’s now thirty four years old, has been divorced twice in nine years, and is coming off possibly the worst-received album of her career. It feels like the right time to “grow up” and start making music for the adults that her fanbase became while she was writing ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Bitchin’ Summer.’ In a way, she’s come full circle and is once again crafting the melodic, easygoing pop that resulted in hits like ‘I’m With You’ and ‘My Happy Ending.’ Head Above Water
is chock full of the dramatic and anthemic, and in the meanwhile, Lavigne no longer sounds like a mom who’s desperately trying to fit in with her teenage daughter’s friends.
The problem is, that’s not how maturing works. It’s more than just elongated choral harmonies, grayscale nudity obscured by classical instruments, and shoehorned lyrics about birdies flying away. It’s an organic process that listeners can relate to and understand, and despite Lavigne’s markedly improved vocals (especially on the title track, an ode to personal triumph), Head Above Water
unfortunately proves to be the poster child for decent albums that are ruined by insultingly basic and/or pointless lyrics.
Case in point: ‘Tell Me It’s Over’ actually possesses a fantastic melody – one where Avril’s vocal range soars – and then we’re met with this chorus: “Tell me it's over, if it's really over / 'Cause it don't feel like it's over whenever you're closing the door / So tell me it's over if it's really over / 'Cause every time you come over it doesn't feel over no more / So tell me it's over.” If you counted the number of times she used the word “over” in that passage, you’re not the only one. Mind-numbing repetition is typically par for the course in mainstream radio pop, but even by the lowest of standards, these lyrics still fail. If that song was the worst offender, it’d be much easier to dismiss it and embrace the album’s tuneful inclinations – but I think you know where I’m going with this and yes, it gets much worse.
Often, Head Above Water
is plagued by simpleton lyrics. We’re graced with the third grade poetry of ‘Birdie’ (“Like a bird locked up in a cage…how can I escape this place and go higher？”), as well as the overdone clichés of ‘Love Me Insane’ (“You pick up all of the pieces and put 'em back again, you stitch and sew my heart up”). Other times, the lyrics just don’t make any sense. There’s the awkward humor in the post-chorus of ‘Goddess’ (“Ha, ah, ha, like I'm a goddess, oh”), the flat-out weirdness of ‘Bigger Wow’ (“Na na na, na na na / B-b-bigger [Wow]”), and my brain has suppressed any recollection of ‘Dumb Blonde’ (ft. Nicki Minaj) in order to protect itself. There are a number of other writers credited on this album (all of whom should be fired), but in the following sample from ‘I Fell In Love With The Devil’, there’s nobody else for Lavigne to hide behind (as she was the sole writer): “Shotguns and roses make a deadly potion / Heartbreak explosions in reckless motion / Teddy bears and "I'm sorry" letters / Don't seem to make things better.” It’s anyone’s guess why shotguns and roses make a deadly potion (a metaphor for violence and love, ingenious!), or what teddy bears and apology notes have to do with aforementioned bloodbath. The ensuing chorus is a very predictable plea, “I fell in love with the Devil, and now I'm in trouble / Someone send me an angel, to lend me a halo.” Again, it’s a shame – because the string-laden backdrop adds a lush atmosphere and the vocal melody is gorgeous. It’s just difficult for anyone with a creative bone in their body not to be offended by the song’s stupidity, a sentiment that can be extended to just about the whole album. Lyrics do
matter, even in pop music, as much as we all sometimes like to pretend that they don’t.
The hardest pill to swallow is that for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with the music
here. It’s predictable, enjoyable pop with more than its share of hooks. It’s definitely catchier than most of Lavigne’s self-titled album, and by any other standards it should at least be critically received as an average mainstream record. However, the whole “maturity” shtick feels entirely disingenuous when Lavigne can’t muster anything better than the drivel you just read, and when she continues to relapse by agreeing to allow songs as abhorrently juvenile as ‘Dumb Blonde’ (for all intents and purposes, this album’s ‘Hello Kitty’) to appear on her records. Avril’s fans deserve better. These slightly above average hooks/melodies deserve better. I deserve better. So tell me it’s over.