Avril Lavigne: Head Above Water

Image Courtesy of BMG

Image Courtesy of BMG

By Chris Donohue

When people hear the name Avril Lavigne, the first things that come to mind are typically angsty pop-rock bangers, heavy eyeliner, and the conspiracy theory that at some point during her seventeen year career, she was replaced with a clone named Melissa. This is understandable, considering the themes in some of her best-known songs, such as “Sk8er Boi” and “Girlfriend.” However, her new album Head Above Water, (which also marks her first studio endeavor in five and a half years) adds a new level of depth to her artistry unseen anywhere else in her catalogue.

Lavigne has been noticeably absent from the Hollywood scene for the past few years due to an intense battle with Lyme Disease. A late diagnosis inhibited her recovery to the point that Lavigne says she spent two years not being able to get out of bed  and revealed in an interview with Billboard, “I had accepted that I was dying.”

Being literally on death’s doorstep clearly had a strong influence not only on her artistry, but on her outlook on life. The album’s lead single, title track and opener “Head Above Water” is a true testament to all that she has overcome and the perfect anthem for her triumphant return to the music industry. Its religious undertones and dramatic, powerful vocals share many common threads with Kesha’s 2017 power ballad “Praying,” but each respective song’s lyrics speak so directly to the artist’s individual circumstances that the similarities should not mask the brilliance of “Head Above Water.” Lavigne’s struggle for air, both literally and figuratively, manifests itself in the powerful belt, “my life is what I’m fighting for.” The song’s lyrics speak to her healing processes, both mental and physical, throughout her battle and her recovery, identifying faith and music as her sources of salvation. The song reaches its climax at the end of the bridge when the music cuts out and she sings the first few lines of the final chorus a cappella, demonstrating a paradoxical mix of strength and vulnerability.

Using her personal and health struggles as a guide, the album also explores the theme of maturity, offering a testament to her growth as both a person and an artist over the past few years. Now in her mid-30s, Lavigne is no longer chasing sk8er bois, or proclaiming, “here’s to never growing up”; instead, she confronts the challenges she has faced and employs them to create music that inspires. This noticeable change in direction is especially prominent in the slower, introspective tracks such as “It Was In Me”, in which she reflects upon her inability  to find true fulfillment in her old ways. This self-examination leads her to discover find hope, perseverance, and even transcendence, demonstrating the personal transformation she has undergone during her hiatus.

However, the album is much more than a collection of dense, introspective tracks. The simplicity and lightheartedness of “Souvenir” feels like a breath of fresh air following the intensity of “It Was In Me” while “Goddess” enchants listeners with the simple pleasures of new love. (She also rhymes “pajamas” with “bananas” in this song–  I can’t tell whether it’s a reference to the cute but somewhat frightening ‘90s Australian cartoon or just a fun rhyme scheme, but I’m down for it either way). She shows off her vocal development in “Tell Me It’s Over,” where she intertwines feelings of love and frustration in what can be viewed as a grown-up version of her debut single “Complicated.”

The most significant deviation from the album’s prevailing themes is the track  “Dumb Blonde”, a collaboration with Nicki Minaj that returns to a more “typical” Avril Lavigne sound. This clap-back anthem perfectly balances  humor, anger and sass and I mean it as a compliment when I say it sounds like it could’ve come straight out of 2010. Although it seems a little out of place on this album, and some might even argue that it is a step backwards when compared to the album’s other artistic advances,  it’s an enjoyable song nonetheless. More importantly, it reminds fans that the Avril we grew to love in the 2000s is still around.

Lavigne strategically saves her best song for last by placing “Warrior” as  serve as the perfect book-end to “Head Above Water.” By electing opening and closing songs that stress the same themes, more or less, she makes the album’s overall message unmistakable. . This piano ballad brings the album full circle by reiterating the pain expressed at the beginning, but generalizes the message a bit to make it applicable to whatever battles her listeners may face. “I’m stronger, that’s why I’m alive,” she declares  during the chorus and it resonates because she means it literally. The pain she endured through her illness, divorce and fade into obscurity is palpable in this song specifically with the raw emotion manifesting itself in Lavigne’s voice cracks. She doesn’t necessarily stretch her vocal range to its limits as she does in other songs, but her tasteful restraint speaks more than words. These deliberate choices in vocal style, background music, and production elements, along with her powerful songwriting, all help legitimize Avril Lavigne as an artist who really knows what she’s doing.

Concepts of perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and survival are nothing new in music, and can even come off as hackneyed if not executed properly. But what distinguishes Head Above Water from other motivational music is Lavigne’s personal connection with the words she writes and sings, and it is this passion that makes her songs even more powerful. To say that Lavigne has been to hell and back since her last album would be an understatement, but the art that came out of this rocky journey is truly remarkable and her resilience, as evinced in Head Above Water, undoubtedly warrants  deep admiration.

Steven Norwalk