I Just Want A Bigger Wow: Avril Lavigne – ‘Head Above Water’ (Album Review)

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Avril Lavigne’s sixth studio album, Head Above Water, is brimming with sugary sweet mid-tempos about love, loss and lessons learnt, but lacks variety.

The viral Internet hoax that Avril died and was replaced by a clone named Melissa to keep the funds flowing is officially case closed. Eerily, the real Avril came close to a version of that unfortunate destiny. The singer was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and it nearly killed her. Rightfully so, she calls some of the time in between her last album, 2013’s self-titled, and now, “the worst years of [her life].” Complications from the bacterial infection became so dire, Avril said she made peace with dying, and that moment of despair – her rock bottom – inspired the album’s name and lead single. Her resurgence is a recurring theme throughout Head Above Water, an album that flexes Lavigne’s songwriting skills and soaring vocals like never before. But the carefully crafted hooks and similar piano / guitar-lead production creates a lull, and that’s shame considering she has an arsenal of heroic memories to draw from and sing about.

“Head Above Water” is a self-aware power ballad about swimming from the abyss towards the surface and taking a breath after drowning from fear and sickness. “Fighting Lyme disease has been the hardest battle I’ve ever fought,” Avril said upon the song’s release, adding that “it’s not over yet.” “Writing the music that I shared with you today helped me heal.” Avril spent years recovering and journaled every scary second, but Head Above Water as a whole doesn’t reflect those intimate moments. It often feels more nervous and flirtatious than triumphant, and that’s where she fails.

“Birdie” is the album’s cinematic soundtrack song (picture it being featured in a heroine-lead blockbuster [I’ve surrendered to the mental image of Kristen Stewart riding a white horse in slow motion on her way to slay the evil queen). On it, Avril sings about escaping the shackles of self-doubt. It shares a likeness to “Head Above Water” – using vulnerability as a fuel for personal liberation. Av says she wrote it “from a place of not allowing something to hold you back from your full potential and “loving yourself enough to allow yourself to fly.”

“I Fell In Love With The Devil” is a curious contrast to “Head Above Water,” but it’s not obvious. The album title track found an audience in the Christian community because of its religious undertones (“God, keep my head above water”), so to have a song that finds the singer chanting about falling in love with the devil is amusing. Yet again, Avril sings about feeling restrained.

Co-written with best friend/singer, Ryan Cabrera, “Tell Me It’s Over” is the album’s champion and one of my favorite songs by Avril EVER. That leads me to an interesting revelation – I had hoped to hear more songs like some of my go-to Avril favs: “Bad Girl” with Marilyn Manson off the self-titled, “Smile” off 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby, “Hot” off 2007’s The Best Damn Thing and “I’m With You” from her debut album. I wanted another “Hello Kitty.” I wanted exploration into a realm of badassery. Some of her most iconic and guilty pleasure gems were unexpected creations, and Head Above Water, aside from “Tell Me It’s Over,” falls short. “Over” is a gorgeously written, honest tune about losing love. It’s one of the only instances I felt connected to Avril on the new LP, but my exuberance gets quickly thwarted when the Nicki Minaj-assisted song “Dumb Blonde” blares on afterward. It’s unlistenable. It feels like the label’s plea for one pop song towards unapologetic obscurity, and Avril obliged… but it’s not charming or provocative – a balance Avril was queen at. An explicit version of the song exists online sans Nicki, but fortunately Nicki was added in in the eleventh hour to water it down.

It took me several days to differentiate between the songs in the second half of the album. “It Was In Me” is Avril’s reminder to believe yourself. “We search everywhere for the answers in life, but they’re actually buried within us,” she says of the song. In between ethereal background vocals and Avril’s whisper mantras, her vocals fly. It’s a sister to “Goddess,” another guitar-driven mid-tempo about a guy loving her through the good, the bad and the ugly. Side note: I can’t un-hear how she pronounces the word ‘bananas.’

“Crush” is cut from the same cloth as the latter two. Avril sings about demolishing her walls to fall in love, but after heart-wrenching history with breakups she remains hesitant. “Love Me Insane” is about the same exact thing.

It’s not all doom and gloom on Head Above Water, however. “Souvenir” is gloriously camp and catchy. It’s perfect for blasting in your car down the highway with the windows down. “Bigger Wow” is also guilty pleasure pop song and should absolutely get performed live as soon as possible. The bratty, braggadocios “nah nah nahs” are signature Avril, and a pleasure to bop along to.

The album finishes the same way it started with “Warrior,” a 1-2 punch power ballad aimed at her life-threatening battle with Lyme disease.

Head Above Water ticks all the boxes. It’s an emotionally honest chapter ripped from Avril’s worn diaries detailing a time she’d rather forget, but it fails to take the listener on a journey through highs and lows because the songs don’t stray from her resurgence or trepidation to love. I can appreciate that Avril wanted to put forth a body of work that reflected her struggles, because facing your mortality and living to sing about it is an insurmountable accomplishment, but as a longtime fan I’m yearning for more. In between her rise from the ashes were lessons, but I’m afraid they were lost in a haze of similar piano melodies.

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