Back in 2013, Avril Lavigne launched her last album with the nostalgic banger ‘Here’s To Never Growing Up’, which suggested she could be getting trapped by her ‘sk8er girl’ persona. When you sell 16m copies of your debut as a teenager, artistic development must be, well, complicated. But since 2013’s ‘Avril Lavigne’ campaign, she’s gone through divorce (her marriage to Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger ended in 2015) and a debilitating battle with Lyme Disease that left her bed-bound. So, perhaps inevitably, ‘Head Above Water’ offers a more sober and grown-up kind of pop-rock than she’s known for.
Lavigne has never been pop’s most sophisticated lyricist, but her plain-speaking style makes for compelling listening here. When she sings “my life is what I’m fighting for” on the melodramatic title track, it packs a hefty emotional punch because you can hear the struggle in her voice – a voice that’s actually sounding stronger than ever. Elsewhere, she details relationship breakdown with a stinging honesty. On ‘Birdie’ she compares herself to a bird locked in a cage; “please save me from this hell” she sings on a track called ‘I Fell In Love With The Devil’ (ouch). The album’s one uptempo moment, ‘Dumb Blonde’, essentially a buffer cousin to 2007’s ‘Girlfriend’, fires a sassy clap-back to a man who underestimated her.
The album’s second half is generally happier and blander. ‘A Bigger Wow’ sounds like a cross between Shania Twain and Sheryl Crow; the sweet, retro-leaning ‘Crush’ might be better suited to Kelly Clarkson. But even on her less memorable songs, Lavigne’s pop smarts shine through. ‘Love Me Insane’ recycles the “yeah-e-yeah” vocal hook from her early hit ‘I’m With You’ and ‘Goddess’ is filled with fun, clunky couplets. “He thinks I’m sexy in my pyjamas / The more I am a hot mess / The more he goes bananas,” Lavigne sings with a wink. Somehow, the way she pronounces “bananas” in a cod-British accent actually adds to the charm.
‘Head Above Water’ isn’t her most banging album, but it is a deeply honest one that sounds a lot like growing up gracefully. Back in 2013, that didn’t seem like something Lavigne would pull off.