Review Summary: A masterfully crafted collection that warmly recalls the era of album-driven FM rock radio.
She’s sold millions of records, at the age of 34, she still looks better than some women half her age. Yet on Head Above Water, Avril Lavigne still sounds down. Five years on from the sun drenched, radio-friendly self-titled record, Lavigne's taken a 180 degree turn – her new album is light on the good-time country blues that made her name and heavy on the sad, wistful ballads.
It’s not as big a departure as some of the advance publicity has made out, as Lavigne's music has never been a stranger to melancholy. Songs such as "My Happy Ending" or "Sk8er Boi" were always steeped in a sense of sadness, while the deceptively upbeat The Best Damn Thing had the bittersweet refrain of “it's innocence, it's brilliant”.
Yet this is a different sound for Lavigne, employing string arrangements for the majority of tracks here (all written by Lavigne). The difficulty with string sections is avoiding them sounding overblown and Avril succeeds admirably here.
When Head Above Water works, it works beautifully. The lead single "Head Above Water" is gloriously uplifting with a melody that, on first listen, washes over you but after a couple of plays sounds like an old friend. The slide guitar from long-time collaborator J.R. Rotem also adds to the general classiness of proceedings. The title track is a beautifully intimate number, featuring just Lavigne , an acoustic guitar and Stephan Moccio's unobtrusive string section.
Lyrically, it’s not the full-on love letter that some people may have predicted, although "Love Me Insane" is a rather slushy and forgettable number. One of the best tracks on the album, "Dumb Blonde", is a poignant look at the modern stereotypes. Telling the story of a "Birdie", “who can't sing, but I buy you diamonds and ruby rings”, it’s a sad, yet hopeful, song which sounds even more effective in the acoustic version at the end of the album.
The one problem with Head Above Water is its lack of variety. Although the air of wistful melancholy is beguiling for a while, it gets a bit samey over the course of an album. Songs such as "Souvenir" and "Bigger Wow" sound like Lavigne on auto-pilot. It comes as a blessed relief when "Goddess", appears, a great, up-tempo rocker that could easily sit on Lavigne's classic debut album. Both "Goddess" and "Warrior" have an almost Beatles-esque quality. The former is most notable for its lush harmonies, and the latter’s stark arrangement makes Lavigne's breathy delivery impossible to ignore. Likewise, with its Carlsson piano and tambourine, "I Fell in Love with the Devil" is a saccharin sweet pop ditty that wouldn’t be out of place with the early ’90s work of Beatles devotees Jewel.
A few more tracks like "It Was In Me" could have lifted this record from a good Avril Lavigne record to a great one. Yet, for all its flaws, it’s still a better album that most of her contemporaries would be able to produce – while Head Above Water may not restore her to the high profile she enjoyed a few years ago, it’s still a timely reminder that she’s one of Canada's more talented songwriters working today.