Published Feb 12, 2019What do you do with a rebel heart when it gets old?
It's an age-old question that everyone from Elvis to JAY-Z have grappled with, with varying degrees of success. Yet few leaned into their youthful insouciance as hard and at so young an age as Avril Lavigne. Just 17 years old when her debut, Let Go, was released, she was already trying on different aesthetics (as anyone her age does) by the time her sophomore record dropped just two years later. Yet neither doubling down, moving past, nor looking back ever really seemed to suit Lavigne, who remains frozen in time in the minds of many fans. All were sincere efforts, Lavigne just never seemed able to stick the landing.
So it was telling when a recent profile in The Guardian, Lavigne — still only 34 years old, but more than a decade-and-a-half into her career — described her stature with new record label BMG as a "legacy artist," suggesting that she finally had the corporate backing she needed to grow up, musically speaking. And unlike 2011's awkward Goodbye Lullaby, the first product of this deal, Head Above Water, feels like the most honest representation of Lavigne since her debut.
Lavigne's been writing on the piano for some time now and it's clearly influenced her overall sound. Gone are the pop punk and singer-songwriter influences, replaced by slower tempos and a more modern, adult contemporary sound. Across the record's 12 tracks, Lavigne tries on a variety of styles, inhabiting each with ease, but rarely manages to rise above and make the sound her own.
Two exceptions are "Dumb Blonde," a catchy, if rather ham-fisted effort that feels like a B side from The Best Damn Thing, and "Souvenir," where Lavigne turns her lover into a trinket to own. Both show flashes of the defiant Lavigne fans fell in love with. The former is the record's closest nod to the chart aspirations of the past, a glimpse into the path this record could have taken. The latter is a breezy update of the kind of casual gender role reversal Lavigne's employed since donning a black tie back in 2002.
More often than not, though, she's squarely in the middle of the road. "Head Above Water" and "Warrior," which bookend the record, are self-empowerment anthems in the Rachel Platten vein, but undergirded by Lavigne's battle with Lyme disease that's kept the singer away from the spotlight for the past few years. "Tell Me It's Over" is an old-school soul torch ballad, while "I Fell In Love with the Devil" will certainly add fuel to ever-raging fire around her romantic life. Lavigne's choice of co-writers is often a good indication of the direction her records are headed, and a quick scan of the songwriters involved here — Travis Clark, Bonnie McKee, Ross Golan — reveals a team of seasoned professionals more into riding trends than making them.
But then, listening to Head Above Water, you don't get the impression that breaking new musical ground was the point. Like Kesha's Rainbow, it's more a chance for Lavigne to reclaim her narrative in a space that suits the person she is today, not who fairweather fans wish she was. The fun, bratty Lavigne is missed — if ever there was a time for an outspoken, give-no-shit female artist, it's now. But sincerity suits Lavigne. (BMG)