Release Date: February 15th 2019
Reviewed by Joshua Andre
- Head Above Water
- I Fell In Love With The Devil
- Tell Me It’s Over
- Dumb Blonde (feat. Nicki Minaj)
- It Was In Me
- Bigger Wow
- Love Me Insane
“…When you go through something like that…[Lyme disease], you realize how fulfilling simple things are — things I could do anymore, like being able to get up in the morning and go to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee. It taught me patience; it taught me being more present. That was a beautiful lesson. I’m a very spiritual person, and I definitely did turn to God during that experience…music really lifted me up and made me feel better. I was able to take a hard time in my life and make the best out of a circumstance that was I was going through. … At first, I didn’t know I was making an album — I just naturally turned to songwriting in a time of healing…” Canadian pop/punk rocker Avril Lavigne, who burst on the mainstream pop scene in 2002 with her smash hit single “Complicated”, and then began to churn out album after album of pop goodness since then; disappeared for a long while over the past few years- and now she is back after a 6 year hiatus, ready to tell her most personal, honest and vulnerable story via the album Head Above Water. To tell you all the truth, I hadn’t actively listened to Avril’s music (apart from singles like “Complicated” and “Keep Holding On”, which both played on Hope 103.2 time and time again!) until Avril dropped the single “Head Above Water” in September last year. And that was only because the song featured in my Release Radar Spotify playlist- and you can indeed read the review of that single here! However since that time, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Avril’s new album- which finally dropped to all physical and digital retailers this past week. Would I have been excited for Avril’s comeback album had she not sung a ‘Christian’/‘worship’ song; if “Head Above Water” was a pop/punk/rock anthem rather than a soft inspirational ballad? Maybe, maybe not. However, the point still remains that over the past 6 years, Avril has had many a hardship. She has toiled, put the hard work and the effort in, written music not for the sake of doing an album, but as a way of healing while she was sick; and has come through the tunnel- through the other side of adversity- with much perspective and a different outlook.
See the reason for Avril’s absence from social media was due to a debilitating illness. Describing Lyme disease in full detail, which was what Avril had, would take quite a long time (hence the Wikipedia link!), however what I will say is that there were times where Avril was too sick to even get out of bed. And it was one night, when she thought she would die, when she called out to God to save her; that the lyrics and music for this album came. First came “Head Above Water”, the title track, the lead single and the album opener. A far cry and a complete 180 turnaround from the pop/punk days of “Sk8er Boi”, “I’m With You”, “Girlfriend”, “When You’re Gone”, “What The Hell” and “Here’s To Never Growing Up” (yep, I did google these song titles– I’m not really afraid or ashamed to admit that!); the first few bars of the song play out more like a radio friendly CCM track that Natalie Grant or Plumb could’ve easily recorded. And with “Head Above Water” quickly garnering plenty of airplay on Christian radio, the stage was set for Avril’s comeback album to be full of buzz and maybe controversy, given that Avril hadn’t explicitly shared her faith with the public before.
“Tell Me It’s Over” followed as the second single in December; and was a jazz/Motown/soul/blues/gospel tune that was totally out of left field in terms of Avril’s ‘normal’ genre. So by the time the album dropped this week, there was intrigue and apprehensive hopefulness. But what do I as essentially a first time listener to Avril’s music think of this album 6-years-in-the-making? Well first of all, I think it’s great. And not just because I’m a Christian and I love that “Head Above Water” shows Avril giving all of her worries and struggles over to God. It’s mainly because this album- from track 1 to track 12- peels back the layers of Avril, and shows her soul laid bare, and her messy, complicated, vulnerable self, with no filter, yet also with hopefulness and a real message. It’s not like other pop albums that speak about living in the moment from day to day- and this is why I can listen to Head Above Water multiple times, and still not be bored. A pretty good feat for who is in effect a pop artist- someone I wouldn’t normally seek out to listen to.
“…One night, I thought I was dying, and I had accepted that I was going to die. My mum laid with me in bed and held me. I felt like I was drowning. Under my breath, I prayed, ‘God, please help to keep my head above the water.’ In that moment, the songwriting of this album began. It was like I tapped into something. It was a very spiritual experience. Lyrics flooded through me from that point on…” As a first song for a comeback album, “Head Above Water” is everything we as listeners could ever wanted and more. Avril is real here, as she vividly describes her battle with Lyme Disease, culminating in a heartfelt and honest prayer to God, asking ‘…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, drown, drown…’. Yet with the openness and success at Christian radio came mixed reviews from critics. However in my opinion, as Avril drives home to sentiment that Jesus is the only One who can keep us afloat, that can save us from the storms of life; I am blessed to hear a woman who is secure in what she believes, regardless if it is against popular opinion or not. Nowadays it’s trendy to not be religious, however I commend Avril, particularly now as she is re-starting her career again in a tougher music market, to stand by her values and not compromise based on potential sales.
After the overwhelming spiritual experience and explosive worship anthem that is the title track, one could be forgiven to think that Avril’s musical experimentation would be over and that we’d hear 11 songs of pop/punk and songs about partying ala early Stellar Kart days. Yet for those of us hoping to catch a glimpse of pre-Lyme Disease Avril, the happy-go-lucky person who was all concerned with fun, fun, fun, then let me be the first to say that she doesn’t make an appearance here. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not at all. Piano pop ballad “Birdie” crescendos into an all-out semi-gospel/soul melody, that taps into the feeling of being locked in a cage like a bird, always trying to please the next person, while being unhappy yourself- with Avril eventually relaying to us that if we’re stuck in a negative situation, we should in fact fly away like a bird does. While revealing strings-led Plumb-like track “I Fell In Love With The Devil” dives deep into the intricacies of a toxic relationship, as Avril once again looks to the heavens and pleads ‘…someone send me an angel, to lend me a halo, I fell in love with the Devil, please, save me from this hell…’– probably one of the most musically and lyrically layered songs I’ve heard in a few years!- while the second single is jazz/blues tune “Tell Me It’s Over”, a song where Avril is at breaking point, longing to break up with her abusive lover, wanting him to tell her ‘…if it’s really over, cause it don’t feel like it’s over whenever you’re closing the door…’. After all of the hopefulness of “Head Above Water”, we are bombarded with a trio of seemingly depressing songs, but tracks that are confronting and needed for us to take stock and ask the tough questions. It’s clear that Avril went to some dark places for these songs, however it’s also to be commended that she went to those places, when other pop artists may not have.
By this time if you’re feeling jaded and worn out, and wondering if Avril will forever record slower paced music, never fear, because “Dumb Blonde”, a girl-power anthem and the most upbeat song on the album, and a duet with rapper Nicki Minaj, harkens back to the punk days of old. With Avril unashamedly relaying to us that ‘…I’m a babe, I’m a boss and I’m makin’ this money, I can flip like a switch and I cut like a blade, I can sting like a bee, but I’m sweeter than honey, and I’m quick as a whip so get outta my way…’, we are reminded that women are complex (and in fact all humans are complex!), so we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. As with this song- it seems like a poppy song with no meaning, but in reality, is probably the most meaningful song on the album (aside from “Head Above Water”). Nicki’s stirring rap features near the end of the album, and adds something a bit extra as Avril shows us that, yes she has grown in her musical repertoire, however she has not forgotten her punk roots.
If the front half of the album is loaded with tracks about dysfunctional relationships, the back-end dives deep into the total opposite- songs that speak about the healthy dynamics of a couple head over heels in love. “Souvenir” is an acoustic guitar led pop ballad, exquisitely depicting a young couple in love, but belonging on different parts of the world, as Avril longs to keep the person as a souvenir of that certain chapter of her life. It’s a bittersweet and emotional track that has an ambiguous ending but nonetheless still is hopeful; and might be alluding to Avril’s still civil relationship with her ex-husband and friend Chad Kroeger. While “Crush” is an acoustic guitar and piano led lullaby-ish track in which the persona tells their new lover of their past relationships, and that they’ve been broken before- and they implore the person not to crush them this time; and songs like “Goddess” and “Love Me Insane” continue the ‘positive relationship-style’ melodies.
The former is an acoustic guitar led song in which Avril confidently highlights to us her secure relationship in which he treats her so special- like a goddess; and the latter is an in depth examination of the relationship introduced to us in “Goddess”, as Avril imparts to us that her significant other loves her ‘insane’- which is a neat concept, even if there is a tad too much repetition in this song. The final bouncy-style relationship track is “Bigger Wow”, a strings led pop tune that could definitely work on radio, as Avril sings about a more fulfilling and satisfying life. Keeping the song vague, and calling the life she wants to live as a ‘bigger wow’; there is a subtle inference that her new and improved life will have her significant other by her side.
All of these happy songs followed by these sad songs mean that Avril is indeed on the road to recovery. Yet throughout the whole track list, there are two songs that stand out the most, aside from the album opener. “It Was In Me” is a heartfelt, personal, honest and emotional rollercoaster of a piano ballad, that showcases Avril’s powerful vocals to perfection. Singing at the top of her lungs, and relaying to us that she no longer has the urge to chase after material possessions, but rather is awakened to the realisation that fulfilment, satisfaction and true happiness comes from within- by relationships with family, friends and with God; this track is probably one of the most inspiring mainstream tracks I’ve heard since Alessia Cara’s “Scars To your Beautiful”. Ending a musically and lyrically diverse and eclectic project with “Warrior”, we hear imagery aplenty, as Avril highlights a battle with shields and swords in describing her battle with Lyme Disease, while also providing us with hope that the illness is not the end. Ardently crying out that ‘…I’m a warrior, I fight for my life, like a soldier all through the night, and I won’t give up, I will survive, I’m a warrior, and I’m stronger, that’s why I’m alive, I will conquer, time after time, I’ll never falter, I will survive, I’m a warrior…’; I reckon Avril has saved the most hopeful track and probably the most healing track for last, as we end a journey that I am amazed that Avril has gone through.
Avril Lavigne’s tenacity, grit, and determination to inspire us all in the midst of trials and tribulations is what I admire about her, and it is this resolve shown in all of these 12 songs, that makes Head Above Water stand head and shoulders above quite a lot of albums from last year, and any album thus far from this year- and certainly above any recent pop album that basically sings about sex, drugs, living for yourself and living in the moment. I’m still not sure whether I will take the plunge at this very moment and listen to Avril’s discography pre-Head Above Water (I know I will someday though!), but what I do know is that as far as influence goes right now, Avril is right up there. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will check out Avril’s discography from here on out- so thanks Avril for providing us with a stirring album that has made me a fan! Kudos to everyone involved- Head Above Water is a masterpiece beyond words- and I can’t wait to see what is next in the future!
3 songs to listen to: Head Above Water, It Was In Me, Warrior
RIYL: Taylor Swift, 1GN, Superchick, Flyleaf, LEDGER, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson