"Head Above Water" has as much edge as a pile of mashed potatoes.
Some artists make truly timeless music, music that speaks to generation after generation, relating some universal human experience. Avril Lavigne is not one of these artists.
Her early-2000's hits, like "Sk8er Boy" and "Complicated", are so purely of that time, so compatible with walkmans, AIM messenger, and low rise jeans, that listening to them in the present day is a transportive, reminiscent experience, not a transcendent one. The record scratch sound effects, the punk rock over-enunciation, and the voice distortions, are all products of a simpler time when America was talking about Janet Jackson's nipple instead of nuclear war with Russia.
But perhaps the clear timestamp of Avril Lavigne's music is in part because of her sudden and total disappearance from the music scene at a time when her star seemed to be rising ever higher. Her musical identity never had the opportunity to adjust to changing times. The official reason for the singer's hiatus from the world of music was a hard fought battle with Lyme disease, but the internet disagrees, instead deciding Lavigne's absence was a result of her untimely death and subsequent replacement by a clone named Melissa Vandella.
Race to Erase MS Gala, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 20 Apr 2018
But now, clone or not, the singer known as "Avril Lavigne" has released her first album since 2013, entitled "Head Above Water." The 12 song LP is a meditation on Lavigne's struggle with Lyme disease, which left her bedridden for two years. It trades the pop-punk influences that defined her early career for a piano-driven musicality that is almost unrecognizable as Avril Lavigne, save for her trademark angst-filled roar. The songs show off a singing voice that has only improved with age, maintaining the ability to evoke emotional reactions as it did in songs like "I'm With You," while showcasing a new control that, for better or worse, was missing in earlier albums.
Despite the abundance of proof that the former voice of Gamecube playing, smudged-eyeliner wearing teens has remained talented over all these years, the album ultimately falls flat. The title track is a moving power ballad in the vein of Kesha's "Praying." Its an admittedly strong opening, teasing a cathartic, powerful collection of songs that the listener soon finds doesn't exist. Instead, the remaining songs feature remarkably cliche lyrics, lazy and uninspired backing music, and decent production that almost raises the album to an "Eh." "Goddess," for example, is almost laughably generic, offering sentiments like,
"He treats me like a goddess, goddess
He thinks I'm sexy in my pajamas
The more I am a hot mess
The more he goes bananas"
Beyond the absurdity of the way Lavigne pronounces "bananas," the song also fails in wavering between genres, locked in a clear identity crisis. In moments, the album almost seems to pick up country traits, but not decidedly, instead playing it safe and relying on simple, boring pop melodies completely devoid of the interesting punk leanings of albums like "The Best Damn Thing."
Though, if this newest collection did try to pick back up where the Lavigne of ironic ties and baggy pants left off, we would inevitably comment on the album's out of date sound. To Avril Lavigne's clone's credit, she was faced with a difficult position. Both Lavigne and her audience have aged out of her sound, but she went so long without releasing new work, there was no opportunity to transition and grow into something more contemporary in an organic way. So, to make a meaningful, impactful album, Lavigne and her team needed to make a choice: either commit wholeheartedly to her old sound, forcing people to remember what they loved about it, or go in a completely different direction. Instead, they made no decision, existing in a musical no-man's-land without definition or identity, creating a boring album that has no idea what it's trying to say besides, "Look! Avril Lavigne can still sing!"
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