After battling a debilitating disease and a second divorce, Avril Lavigne has returned with her triumphant sixth album, Head Above Water. Some five-and-a-half years have past since her last record, and the changes in the singer have never been more transparent; while 2013’s Avril Lavigne was an attempt to recapture her youth, Head Above Water is all about the experiences that have shaped her adulthood. Stripped as a general rule — most tracks consist exclusively of acoustic guitar, piano, and drums — the album’s production hearkens back to the singer’s lifelong influences in jazz, gospel, and soul. It may be a jarring listen to the casual fan used to her pop punk hits of yesteryear, but the devout will recognize this as a natural progression in Lavigne’s discography.
Title track and opener “Head Above Water” sets the stage for the grandiose and emotional vocal performances that litter these songs; with allusions to spirituality and perseverance, Lavigne spells out the lyrical themes of the first half of album quite well. “I Fell in Love with the Devil” and “It Was in Me” continue the nod to the singer’s religious upbringing, while “Birdie” and “Warrior” declare she won’t be caged or thrown to the wayside. Nicki Minaj-assisted “Dumb Blonde” follows a similar path, albeit with a more recognizable Lavigne sound, denouncing men that are under the impression that women are inferior.
Head Above Water’s back half focuses on stages of love, including early infatuation (the aptly titled “Crush”), the hopeless romanticism of knowing something must come to an end (“Souvenir”), and obsessiveness that comes with the honeymoon stage of a relationship (“Love Me Insane”). Some work better than others here — she rhymes “pajamas” with “bananas” on the sickeningly sweet “Goddess” — but Lavigne sells it all with a saccharine smile. Long gone is the give-no-fucks attitude of her past; she finally cares about the happenings in her life, and the shift couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Imperfect in the way the singer has always been, Head Above Water is the work of an artist ready to tackle life without the teenage dramatics she’s made her name on, and she’s not concerned whether or not we’re ready to embrace it. She shouldn’t be.
Standout tracks: “Head Above Water,” “Dumb Blonde,” “Souvenir,” “Goddess”