Strong singing and meaningful themes of self-empowerment amount to a successful comeback for Canadian singer Avril Lavigne in her sixth album, ‘Head Above Water.’
For fully half of her 34 years– yep, that’s how long it’s been since we were all hollering “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” together with our friends on the bus during our 5th grade field trips— Avril Lavigne has achieved a remarkable run as a pop music hit-maker. Her sixth album Head Above Water (released February 15, 2019 via BMG) puts an end to the longest dry stretch of that whole period, one which was marred by many personal difficulties and a life-threatening illness.
The best songwriters know how to channel their inner turmoil into compelling lyricism, and the author of a great chunk of Canada’s all-time most successful worldwide smashes is hardly an exception. The opening and title track demonstrates the resilience and determination that Lavigne has exhibited at multiple points in her career, albeit under drastically different circumstances this time around.
Lyme disease left Lavigne essentially bed-ridden for the better part of two years, but Lavigne is now determined to prove that the malady was no death sentence, either for herself or her career. “I gotta keep moving on,” she sings over a hard-hitting blend of guitar, piano and thunderous drums. “My life is what I’m fighting for, don’t let me drown.” It immediately becomes clear that the Avril Lavigne on this record will be a far cry from the version of her who celebrated the carefree life and toasted to “never growing up” the last time she graced us with her musical presence on 2013’s self-titled release. All the same, “Head Above Water” achieves a stroke of self-assurance that makes a mark in its own right and also succeeds in establishing the tone for the rest of the album.
I’ve gotta keep the calm before the storm
I don’t want less
I don’t want more
Must bar the windows and the doors
To keep me safe to keep me warm
Yeah my life is what I’m fighting for
Can’t part the sea
Can’t reach the shore
And my voice becomes the driving force
I won’t let this pull me overboard
God keep my head above water
Don’t let me drown
It gets harder
I’ll meet you there at the altar
As I fall down to my knees
Don’t let me drown
Don’t let me drown
Another defining event of the hiatus that Lavigne is only now emerging from is her second divorce in five years, this one to fellow Canadian rock artist Chad Kroeger. Although she insists the split was amicable, such a major life transition represents likely fodder for new song material. Sure enough, Head Above Water features a good number of tracks about having to move on from an unsuccessful relationship. “I ain’t your prisoner, you can’t chain me down no more,” she sings on “Birdie.” And then on the stunningly vulnerable “Tell Me It’s Over”: “I’ve played the fool with myself for my last time, I just can’t do this to myself.” It’s quite clear that the time has come to close the door.
Even without knowing who the artist was, it would be clear that whoever made this album has just gone through some difficult times. Yet Lavigne has long displayed impressive thematic maturity in her songwriting– she was only a teenager when she made “I’m With You,” after all– and that remains a commendable quality on Head Above Water. She saves her strongest statement for the closing track “Warrior,” on which she describes the multiple ways in which she embodies that formidable term: “I’m stronger, that’s why I’m alive. I will conquer, time after time.” Neither Lyme disease, nor the pressures of nearly 20 years as an international celebrity, can tear this young lady down in the long run.
Seriousness is the obvious prevailing mood on Head Above Water, but Lavigne does make room for one gleeful bubblegum pop song in the mold of 2007’s “Girlfriend”: the infectious Nicki Minaj duet, “Dumb Blonde.” Lavigne hasn’t been known to incorporate much hip-hop in her music– other than an MC’ing attempt of her own on 2002’s “Nobody’s Fool”– but, like that throwback, this track represents a sincere plea to be taken more seriously, and works quite well in the end. Though it may be more lighthearted and radio-ready, “Dumb Blonde” still falls in line with the theme of female empowerment that characterizes the rest of the album.
At a brisk 40 minutes, Head Above Water can’t possibly do too much to offend Lavigne’s detractors. But for those who have stuck with the Canadian songstress over the years, it should be gratifying to see her return to form after quite a shocking health scare and deliver another set of enjoyable and self-confident power ballads.
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📸 © David Needleman