The pop machine of the early-aughts was a juggernaut; rolling bop after bop off a seemingly endless conveyor belt with an “I Love Lucy”-like fervor. You know the scene: Lucy is tasked with inspecting chocolates as they casually roll by, that is, until the speed increases to a manic degree and hilarity ensues. That was pop in the early-aughts.
It was a time that saw “Oops…I Did it Again” and “Toxic” by Britney Spears get stuck in our heads, hearts and mixes. It produced “Crazy in Love” and fostered Beyoncé’s burgeoning solo career as one of the genre’s—nay, music’s—apex powerhouses. It even buoyed boy bands, and their continued successes and coordinated outfits.
It was a time of ineffable pop, midriff tops and choreographed dancing, but jutting from that sea like a jagged, little jetty was Avril Lavigne: the Canadian singer, skater boy appreciator, and skinny tie savant.
Nearly synonymous with the angst and heartbreak of the early-aughts—find me a single twenty-something woman who didn’t have “Complicated” on a homemade CD—Lavigne was a sort of antithesis to the sterility of the era. She was far from the only artist embracing this slight rejection of conventional commercialism—think Pink—but Lavigne’s brand of pop-punk hit that balance between bitter and sweet just right. Her music was loud and unapologetic, it was fast and rebellious: it was scuffing up the shoes of pop as genre, and delighting in its victories.
But, just like chocolates on a conveyor belt, the times roll along. Sounds evolve and artists grow; cultures find new shiny things to cling to, and rebellions change. This gentle swing between extremes is only natural and like a cresting wave, it rises and falls.
And in this perpetual-motion-pop machine, in this tidal give and take, artists swim along in the eddies of music and genre: some look to roughen up their previous bubblegum image—your Mileys—while others look to soften their sharper edges and hard lines—your Avrils.
Over the course of her decade-plus career, Lavigne has kept pace with her musical peers—“Here’s to Never Growing Up”  hits like a Swift-tune from the Red era, and “What the Hell”  bumps like your standard, club-synth anthem—while slowly distancing herself from the punk of her early-aughts pop-punk sound.
In 2013, there was nary an angst-slicked guitar on Lavigne’s self-titled album. Instead, the singer seemed to wholly embrace the pop ethos of the time (though “Hello Kitty” remains a baffling tune; one which channels The Veronicas’ “Popular,” but about five years too late). In the wake of this decidedly pop album, however, a quietness swelled.
It’s been six years since we last heard from Avril Lavigne, and while the release of Head Above Water marks the end of a drought, it may just leave you thirsty for something more.
At best, Lavigne’s sixth studio album is a collection of bips—songs that have the potential to be bops but, for whatever reason, fail to reach that upper echelon of playability. At worst, it’s a lazy catfight. By which I mean: I thought it’d slap more.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things here that work, and work well at that. The album’s opening song—and namesake—is a sweeping number, one which utilizes percussion, piano and strings so grandiose and effecting, the entire song plays like a cinematic movement. “Tell Me It’s Over” effortlessly struts along its sultry undertones and backing vocals like a Pink Ladies choir. “Souvenir” is a delightful track that perfectly pairs an acoustic guitar with hushed “ah’s” and simple synths; and both “Bigger Wow” and “Love Me Insane” bob along a carefree current that channels the likes of Sabrina Carpenter and pre-reputation Swift.
But for everything that Head Above Water does well, it still suffers from its fair share of stumbles. “Dumb Blonde,” with it’s rapping snare drum-line and robust brass section hits a groove that eyes Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” like an envious cheerleader, and then overcompensates with too much school spirit, and a Nicki Minaj verse. The acoustic guitar-forward “Goddess” starts out strong, but then fumbles a forced pronunciation so jarring, it’s hard to recover as a listener. And it’s even more bewildering to consider the song’s chorus, and it’s stubborn attempts to maintain an end rhyme, when an alternating pattern—ABAB—is right there! “It Was In Me” is a moving ballad, and “Crush” is sweet, but both are entirely forgettable. And that is where Head Above Water truly falls flat: the album’s undoing is its affinity to get lost inside itself.
Individually, the songs are technically sound and sonically safe; Lavigne’s vocals are stellar and pairs well with whatever is happening in the background. But that’s just it, too many songs on Head Above Water can fade into the background with little to no fight; they lose their singular bite, play like a reiteration of the tune that came before it and then, quite unfortunately, became a bit static.
Listen, reinvention—or progress or evolution or whatever you want to call it—is a tricky thing. Change too much, and accusations of “selling out” are lobbied against you while your current and former selves are pitted against one another: both of which are inevitably dissected in an open forum like a gladiator’s arena. Change too little, however, and suddenly your a pastiche version of what you once were—a performative yawn of yesteryear’s hits—and easily forgotten, or dismissed.
So, to compare Head Above Water to early-aughts Lavigne—that cultivated era of Let Go  and Under My Skin —isn’t fair. It’s disingenuous at best, and ignorant of a decade of creative work at worst. But that era of Avril is, perhaps, the version of the singer many of us are most familiar with: that pop with black eyeliner, that punk with hints of saccharine. And if you push beyond the veneer of Head Above Water, if you forgive it for its cracked glisten and grant it the benefit of the doubt, the ethos of the early-aughts are there.
New love, good love, bad love—“Birdie” and “I Fell In Love With The Devil”—are gathered here, and packaged with songs that stitch Lavigne’s heart to her sleeve. The angst and the rebellion are still here: they’re just grown now.
If you were to hold Head Above Water up to the light, you would see a slightly confusing image refracted back at you. It’s not the pop-punk of the early-aughts, and it’s not the club-pop of late-stage bop-ability; it’s something that follows that trajectory organically, but just hasn’t quite figured out how to stick the landing yet. But to reject this album from the start is to deny Lavigne her own vulnerability.
The powerfully anthemic and piano-driven closing track, “Warrior,” is a conclusion that not only sonically makes sense, but also brings the album full circle. “Head Above Water” and “Warrior,” the bookends of Lavigne’s latest LP, both chronicle the singer’s recent health battles with Lyme Disease. The former, a prayer written from a place of genuine uncertainty—“God, keep my head above water / Don’t let me drown, it gets harder”—while the latter is an ending that comes from digging deep, and surviving. It may not be a happy ending—not yet, anyway—but it is a start towards progress.
And listen, I’m a glass-half-full—because to be anything else in 2019 is to be sad all the time—kinda gal. I know this album has its faults, but it plays with a familiarity and honesty that makes it easy to forgive. And while the waves of Head Above Water are tepid at times, they still crest and crash and rise again.
Just like Avril Lavigne: the warrior.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Top Tracks: Head Above Water, Tell Me It’s Over, Souvenir, Bigger Wow
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.