It’s been over five years since Avril Lavigne released her eponymous fifth album, the longest gap between records in her career. But that time off was necessary, and far from a simple break. Early in 2015, Avril revealed she was battling Lyme Disease and had been bed-ridden for months. It took her years to recover, but she spent that time using music to heal. The first song she wrote while she was sick was “Head Above Water,” eventually released as the first single from her comeback album of the same name.
In contrast to her 2013 lead single, “Here’s To Never Growing Up,” Avril has done a lot of growing up in the last six years. Indeed, her new album is deeper and more mature than ever before, harkening back to the darkness and honesty of Let Go and Under My Skin and the vulnerability of Goodbye Lullaby. While Head Above Water does have its upbeat moments, there are only brief flashes to The Best Damn Thing and Avril Lavigne. It lacks the immaturity and fun-for-the-sake-of-being-fun; instead, there’s more depth and assertiveness even on the most upbeat tracks.
Head Above Water tells a story, taking listeners on a journey from Avril’s lowest points in life to happier times with newfound love and freedom. Moreover, every song here is strong; there is no filler, as with previous records. Each song imparts a clear message, impassioned vocals and dynamic instrumentation bringing impact. Avril explores new themes and styles, trying on jazz, soulful Motown, and acoustic singer-songwriter. Ballads and midtempo tracks make up the bulk of the album, but a handful of upbeat songs prevent it from feeling too weighty.
The tracklist is dynamic, switching between topics and genres, but it’s also seamless. This is Avril’s most cohesive album to date, without the pitfalls of overdoing one theme or mood for too long. Head Above Water sounds like an extension of Let Go and Under My Skin, the grown-up version of where that Avril would have been today.
Fans will also be pleasantly surprised by how much Avril’s voice has improved. She’s always been a talented – and underrated – vocalist, but Head Above Water highlights her singing like no album before. Every song shows off her range, control, and emotive skill. Avril’s voice has never been better, and it’s a treat to hear her use it so well throughout the whole album.
It’s been a long time coming, and Head Above Water was more than worth the wait. It’s Avril’s best album in over a decade – and perhaps the best of her career so far. It may be too early to make this call, but Head Above Water could very well be the highlight of 2019. This marks Avril’s triumphant return, and hopefully one that will promise more music to come.
Track By Track
“Head Above Water” – The album starts on an unusually somber note, a rare ballad opener in contrast with her usual upbeat first tracks. But here, the title track is a fitting start that is honest, setting the stage for the health crisis that nearly ended Avril’s career. “Head Above Water” comes from a moment of vulnerability, but it’s also surprisingly strong, a personal rally to survive when all odds are stacked against you. Avril’s voice is powerful and shows stunning versatility, a welcome theme that carries through the rest of the album. “Head Above Water” is a magnificent song that promises a moving journey through the next 11 tracks.
“Birdie” – Timeless piano opens the next track before Avril enters with low, soulful vocals. “Birdie” is moody and dark, growing into a defiant scream in the chorus. Avril sings, “you can’t hold me down,” bidding herself to fly away from the cage she’s been in. Drums and guitar guide the song before crashing into a distorted bridge. Of all the songs Avril has released in the last 15 years, this sounds the most like Under My Skin.
“I Fell In Love With The Devil” – Stunning strings open the album’s third track, which Avril wrote alone. After the strings swell to a close, “I Fell In Love With The Devil” shifts into piano and despondent vocals. Avril sings low at first, then glides into higher runs before a huge, cinematic chorus. Crashing drums and choirs of vocals add to the movie-like quality of the song. “I Fell In Love With The Devil” sounds like a dark lullaby, and could easily be mistaken for a Lana Del Rey track. It’s an impressive song that ends with the same strings that started it.
“Tell Me It’s Over” – The final string hums of the previous track move seamlessly into the stunningly soulful “Tell Me It’s Over,” the album’s second single. Strings, horns, and a Motown-esque choir complement Avril’s stunning vocal delivery. Avril sings about the ups and downs of a relationship, but as she belts in the bridge, this partnership must come to an end. It’s another standout track that finds Avril exploring new territory that fits her surprisingly well. Listeners will hear more of this sound on later tracks, “Crush” and “Love Me Insane.”
“Dumb Blonde” – Avril’s been known for her upbeat, fun anthems throughout her career, especially since she dropped “Girlfriend” in 2007. But while most of her uptempo songs in the last decade have been immature and not super inspired, “Dumb Blonde” is the first meaningful track she’s released in a while that’s still energetic and catchy. The verses introduce Avril’s aversion to misogynistic comments, while the pre-chorus (featuring superb high vocals reminiscent of Lipps Inc’s “Funky Town”) announce Avril’s #bosschick attributes. The chorus is simpler, but a Nicki Minaj feature on digital versions of Head Above Water brings the whole song together. (Avril’s rapped bridge on the solo version of the track is worth hearing too; get it from physical copies of the album.) The song sticks out on the album, but it doesn’t detract from the overall flow.
“It Was In Me” – The starkest transition is from the assertive “Dumb Blonde” to more solemn “It Was In Me”. Avril wrote this song with Lauren Christy, one of the songwriters behind Avril’s earliest hits (“Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi,” “I’m With You”). It tackles Avril’s aftermath from Lyme Disease, but it comes at it with more assurance than “Head Above Water” had. Piano drives the song as Avril sings of all the places she looked and failed to find it. The song builds into a chorus that would have fit right in on Let Go – indeed, it sounds strikingly similar to “I’m With You” – as Avril innocently declares that what she needed was already in her. “It Was In Me” is a moving, beautiful song that refocuses Head Above Water.
“Souvenir” – The second half of the album moves into lighter territory. “Souvenir” starts with old-school “yeah”s (think Let Go) before Avril sings a low plea that this summer fling will turn into something more. It builds into something lighter and more carefree, yet still atmospheric in its warm setting. “Souvenir” explodes into a big chorus about taking a chance on love. It’s a sweet love song and reminiscent of the uptempo summery tracks on Avril Lavigne, but with more substance.
“Crush” – Another song fans have known since early 2017, “Crush” is unexpectedly jazzy and calm. It starts with pulsing music and a gliding cello before dropping into a slow, 1960s soul track. Avril sings like a diva again, more delicately than on “Tell Me It’s Over,” but with just as much power. “Crush” is an effervescent, airy love song that pushes Avril further into soulful territory.
“Goddess” – The song transitions seamless into “Goddess,” a simple track featuring only acoustic guitar to back Avril. She sings of dark times and not knowing who she was for a minute, but now Avril has found someone who makes her feel special. The lyrics here are great, combining confessional honesty with sweet innocence. “Goddess” is a singer-songwriter styled love song that balances out the weightier tracks.
“Bigger Wow” – Behind “Dumb Blonde,” “Bigger Wow” is the second most straightforward, upbeat song here. Traditional “na na na”s start the song before Avril sings about the crazy things she’d like to do without fear holding her back. She wants to be “just like kites” in this cute love song. Strings (à la Vanessa Carlton or Carly Rae Jepsen) punctuate between lines, creating a magical foundation for this surprising highlight. Avril “will meet you in the clouds” on this lighthearted track.
“Love Me Insane” – Similar to “Tell Me It’s Over,” “Love Me Insane” dives into soulful, 1960s-styled pop. Piano over a Latin-styled beat backs Avril’s signature “yeah-eeh-yeah,” “la la” “love me insane” intro. She sings the verse over a simple standup bass and snaps, drifting into a bubbly chorus with cute vocals. “Love Me Insane” grows more chaotic as it plays, turning insane as it takes on a circus-like bombast. It’s a freewheeling song that captures the craziness of falling in love.
“Warrior” – Classic piano and strings lead us into the albums closing track. Head Above Water ends with one of the first songs Avril wrote for it, and one fans have been anticipating for over two years. Along with “Head Above Water,” “Warrior” is the perfect bookend to the album. Written about her battle with Lyme Disease, the song is a moving ballad. It’s not as immediate as the first single, but it’s powerful and intricate, and will likely grow into a fan favorite.
Highlights on Head Above Water include: “Head Above Water,” “Birdie,” “I Fell In Love With The Devil,” “Tell Me It’s Over,” and “Crush.”
Head Above Water Score: 5/5
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