The album was originally set for release in 2017. (Photo courtesy of BMG)
“Head Above Water” is the sixth studio album by Avril Lavigne, best known for her wildly popular hits “Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi” and “Girlfriend.” This was her first album in six years, and the lead single of the same name was the first song she has released since her one-off Olympics single, “Fly,” three years ago. In that time, she had been quietly battling a potentially fatal strain of Lyme disease that left her bed-ridden and almost dead. Throughout this new album, it is clear that this battle has left her feeling more empowered than ever before, while still keeping many strands of her past style and personality.
The album opens with the title track and lead single “Head Above Water,” a power ballad with Christian undertones that has her essentially begging to God for her life. It is very metaphorical, personal, powerful and the strongest showing of what her battle has turned her into. While she has been praised throughout her career for her songwriting capabilities, this song and the following album shows off something that she was never known for: her voice. She has quietly turned into a powerhouse vocalist, soaring to new highs on powerful tracks such as this one, “It Was in Me” and “Warrior.”
Despite this revitalization of her talents, she is still very much herself. The third single, “Dumb Blonde,” featuring Nicki Minaj, sounds like it would have fit right back in on her 2007 album, “The Best Damn Thing” along with “Girlfriend.” While it may feel a bit out of place stylistically in this sense, it still circles back to the album’s central theme of self-empowerment in a strong way. It is an upbeat, bratty, anthemic song that does not sacrifice lyrical quality while doing so and it stands out as a highlight as a result.
Right after “Dumb Blonde” comes what is perhaps the album’s most insightful and powerful moment, “It Was in Me.” Here, Avril explores how she spent her life looking for happiness and approval from the outside world, but her experiences have led her to find it within herself instead. It is a really powerful message, with soaring vocals and production to back it up, and stands out as a career highlight as a result.
Despite the album’s strong start, some cracks start to appear in the later half. “Crush,” “Goddess” and “Love Me Insane” all sort of blend together in acoustic pop-rock oblivion, with no real unique things to say or styles to explore. “Goddess” especially sticks out like a sore thumb in this section lyrically. It talks about her falling in love with someone that treats her perfectly, which feels almost like a contradiction to the previous message of “It Was in Me.” Thankfully, the second half is nearly redeemed on the final track, “Warrior,” which hearkens back to the title track’s themes of trying to stay alive and survive. However, where “Head Above Water” had her begging for her life, “Warrior” has her standing up and saving it herself. This development throughout the album of her starting at a low point and slowly lifting herself up to viewing herself as a survivor by her own merits is one of the most powerful statements she has made musically, even if the songwriting can be a bit on the nose, even for her.
While those three weak tracks near the end hold back the album a bit from being a flawless return to the industry, “Head Above Water” is, overall, a strong comeback album, and exactly what Avril Lavigne needed to release to define herself again. It has glimpses of her bratty styles of her hit songs, it has the lyrical cleverness of her past ballads, and it has her voice in stronger form than it has ever been before. It may not be a perfect album, and it is probably not her best overall, but it sounds and feels exactly like what Avril Lavigne should be releasing at this point in her life.
Overall grade: A-