by Rachel Saywitz
When Avril Lavigne stepped onto the music scene in 2002 with her debut single, “Complicated,” she established herself as a brash, loudmouthed, rebel pop-punk superstar. I, like so many others, grew up with Lavigne’s message of embracing the weird and outlandish part of yourself, all to the tune of commercially packaged punk rock.
But in 2014, after the release of her fifth studio album, Avril Lavigne, and a particularly embarrassing Japanese single, the grunge-pop queen seemingly dropped out of the industry altogether. Lavigne later revealed in 2015 that she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, and would be taking a break from releasing music in order to recover. It was a tumultuous time for the singer, who also divorced Nickelback frontman, Chad Kroeger, that same year.
Three years later, Lavigne penned an emotional letter to her fans and released “Head Above Water,” billed as a powerful track about facing one’s mortality. Her album of the same name was released five months later and continues in the same vein as the lead single. Head Above Water is relentlessly personal, there is no doubt about that. Unfortunately, there isn’t too much musical identity anywhere else in the record, and the rebellious spirit of Lavigne’s earlier music is absent.
While the message of Head Above Water is abundantly clear — Lavigne has survived the turmoils of disease and toxic relationships — the actual music fails to have a consistent theme throughout. It doesn’t help that most of the tracks just aren’t that great to begin with. The production sounds too dry, and Lavigne’s vocals too bland. An album filled to the brim with rock-driven ballads, the more pop-oriented tracks tend to come out of left-field, and not in a good way. In particular, the fourth track, “Tell Me It’s Over,” is a doo-wop disaster of a song that would make Billie Holiday roll in her grave.
The slower ballads that make up most of the album don’t bring much to the forefront. The title track “Head Above Water” is the most powerful of the bunch, which would be fine if the other songs were nearly as good. Most of them sound like tunes that a Christian rock band would put out. On the sixth track “It Was In Me,” Lavigne sings about turning to her faith on top of a very uninspired orchestral accompaniment: “All I needed was a little faith in my life.” Indeed, there are quite a lot of references to God throughout this record, which might put off someone who never really listened to Lavigne’s music wanting to be more religious.
Other songs revert back to the boldness of Lavigne’s earlier music but fail to pack much of a punch. “Dumb Blonde” touts itself as a sassy, anthemic track for marginalized women, but not even Nicki Minaj can save this song from being a dated mess. Not only does it sound like it belongs in the 2000s, but the idea of claiming that blonde, white women are oppressed is quite laughable, especially in a time where women of color are claiming more agency than ever before.
I don’t want to dismiss the pains that Lavigne has gone through over the past years; no one is doubting that Lyme disease is terrible and sometimes fatal. However, since the record is overloaded with slow ballads and emotional lyrics about sadness and toxicity, I found it extremely difficult to continue listening by around the 30-minute mark. My favorite track of the album, the groovy sounding “Bigger Wow,” is upbeat and fun, but comes way too late in the record for it to make much of an impact. Head Above Water is a strikingly intimate record for Lavigne, but regrettably, not her best.