‘Head Above Water’ is the first album from Avril Lavigne since her self-titled release in 2013, and the first since her diagnosis with Lyme Disease in 2014. It’s also the first album she’s released on BMG, where she’s now recognised as a “Legacy Artist” at the tender age of 34; given she’s been a recording artist for almost half her age, it’s not a bad place to be.
Given she is, as we’ve already said, 34, it shouldn’t be hard to realise we’re not going to get the likes of ‘Sk8er Boi’, or ‘Complicated’. Avril has certainly grown up and isn’t afraid to show it, and not only that, the past 4 or so years she’s been fighting with Lyme Disease, which she at one point thought was going to kill her. Speaking on social media about the title track, back in September last year, Lavigne said,
One night, I thought I was dying, and I had accepted that I was going to die. My mom laid with me in bed and held me. I felt like I was drowning. Under my breath, I prayed ‘God, please help to keep my head above the water.’ In that moment, the song writing of this album began. It was like I tapped into something. It was a very spiritual experience. Lyrics flooded through me from that point on.
‘Head Above Water‘ effectively serves as a diary of Lavigne’s experiences of living with Lyme. Lyrically the songs are very moving, such as the very striking ‘Birdie’, which sees her comparing herself ot a bird locked up in a cage – “how can I excape this cage and fly higher higher” “set me free” “can you hear me/are you listening”.
‘I Fell In Love With The Devil’ is slightly ambiguous in title, but dig a little deeper, and we see it’s about Lyme again. The whole album reminds us of Kesha’s ‘Rainbow’; it’s serving as a cathartic release, and it’s the anthemic songs which stick hardest in our memories. We’ve seen a lot of these sorts of albums the past couple of years, very introspective, self-examining; the aforementioned ‘Rainbow’, and also Mike Shinoda’s ‘Post Traumatic’, Keuning’s ‘Prismism’, and Mike Posner’s ‘A Real Good Kid’ all take us deep inside the artist and allow us a near fly on the wall intrustion. The same can be said about ‘Head Above Water’ – Lyrically ‘Devil’ is shockingly blunt, and we’re transported to the time when the disease nearly killed Lavigne. “Please save me from this hell” – “angels and devils fight over me, take me to heaven, wake me up from this dream”; we’re rooting for her to overcome her battle, while at the same time feeling slightly awkward and unsure of how to help her.
Fourth track, ‘Tell Me It’s Over’, was released as a Christmas single, and is a Meghan Trainor-esque 60s infused anthem. Speaking of the track, Lavigne said,
The vocals and the lyrics are very vulnerable which is reflective of the feelings I had in relationships like these. I wanted to write something classic and have been inspired by some of the timeless queens I listen to everyday at home, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. They represent women who stand up for women and aren’t going to put up with a man’s bullshit anymore!
This album has had some pretty harsh reviews, but we’re loving it, and it’s an album we’d be happy to play over and over – and we have already. It might be because we really loved ‘Rainbow’ a great deal, and this reminds us a lot of that; and it might also be that we enjoy anthems: but it’s most likely because we haven’t come to this album with any expectations. We’re not expecting Avril to be the same as how she was back in the day – not only is she older, she’s also been through a lot. This is grown up, mature, Avril – an Avril who nearly died from her disease. Add to that the fact that she’s 34 – why should she be expected to be the same as she was back in the day?
Saying that, track 5 is called ‘Dumb Blonde’, featuring Nicki Minaj. Opening with the drums of a marching band, it’s a declaration of GRRRLLLPWER. It’s Avril in fine form, it’s reminding us of ‘Girlfriend’. “I ain’t no dumb blonde/I ain’t no stupid Barbie Doll/I got my game on/Just watch me watch prove you wrong”. And Avril really IS out to prove everyone wrong. She’s still around, she’s still going strong, she’s not died, and been replaced by an imposter (what WAS that all about), she’s Avril Freaking Lavigne! Again, we’ve got to compare her to Kesha with this song, it’s like her version of Kesha’s ‘Woman’ – it’s feisty, it’s fierce, it’s ferocious – and it’s going to be one I’ll be singing long after it’s over.
‘It Was In Me’ and we’ve returned to Avril’s diary. A piano led anthem (lots of anthems in this album, and we feel it’s where Lavigne shines), it’s strong and effusive. She’s searching for something she can’t find in parties, in the love relationships – she’s had to find it in herself. We’re loving this newer, more mature sound. “I finally realised all this time it was in me”.
Much as we really love the anthems, the next four tracks are our favourites on the album. Starting with the rocky, upbeat, almost Americana (Canadiana?) feel of ‘Souvenir’, then followed with the extremely familiar ‘Crush’ – we were singing along before we even knew the lyrics – laid back and casual and altogether lovely, we enjoyed this one a great deal; finally, ‘Goddess’ and ‘A Bigger Wow’, which feel like two parts of the same song. ‘Goddess’ is singing about her lover, who treats her like a goddess, and we’re all wanting a man like this – “He thinks I’m sexy in my pyjamas/the more I am a hot mess the more he goes bananas”. He’s stuck with her through the bad times as well as the good times, and sounds pretty sexy, it must be said. This is followed by ‘A Bigger Wow’, which is upbeat, bouncy, and finger-clicking fun. It’s not too frivolous – okay a little bit frivolous. It’s danceable and funky as well. The strings are really enjoyable, sounding like cello, it’s a perfect follow on from ‘Goddess’. Avril is in love, and enjoying herself.
The finger-clicking continues through ‘Love Me Insane’, which has an incredible string section, and Avril’s vocals are in fine fettle.
Final track, ‘Warrior’ serves as a bookend with the title track, and draws a line of declaration as to where Lavigne is heading. Again, we have to draw comparisons to Kesha: this is Avril’s ‘Praying’. It’s anthemic, it’s strong, it’s intense, it’s powerful.It’s magnificent and awesome. We realise how much of a presence Lyme is in her life. “I won’t stop I won’t drop until the victory’s mine” “I won’t bow, I won’t break no I’m not afraid to do whatever it takes” – she’s a survivor, she’s a warrior – she’s stronger, that’s why she’s alive.
‘Head Above Water’ is Avril Lavigne’s showcase album, it’s her laying down the law, setting boundaries. She’s saying, “this is who I am now, I am fierce, I am going to win this battle.” It’s magnificent. All the way through, we are willing Lavigne to continue, to fight, to grow stronger and beat this disease. If this is any indication of how she is in her life, then we think she’s going to win.
‘Head Above Water’ is out tomorrow, February 15, via BMG. You can pre-order it here. Find Avril Lavigne online on her official website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Visit The Avril Lavigne Foundation for information about Lyme Disease.