Avril Lavigne — Head Above Water ANALYSIS & REVIEW
Okay, hold up now. This isn’t just some washed up musician with past mainstream appeal throwing whatever she can together to make more money. For one, Lavigne’s only 34. For two, and more importantly, there are some high-quality moments to be found on here thanks to Lavigne not completely forgetting what makes her simple songwriting style so charming. I’m certainly not arguing that this work is outstanding as a whole, or that it has any positive consistency. In fact, despite what the super thin surface level perception might be, this is a complete roller coaster in the quality of ideas, execution, and results. This is definitely the most frustrated and rewarded I’ve felt at the same time after listening to an album in recent memory. There is lots to unpack here, and lots that will hopefully clear up what I believe is important in music. In the end, no, this album is not amazing, but for anyone to quickly write it off without much thought would be deplorable.
First off, I’d just like to address what’s become the elephant in the room. Yes, I’ve seen the reception this has gotten from the music community, and it isn’t pretty. And yes, I consider myself a music nerd and a music snob, and think this album deserves a chance. I’m not out here trying to discredit anyone’s opinion, but I think this is a good time for me to draw a line in the sand with regards to the way I experience music vs. the next person.
This album, as I said earlier, has an obvious thin surface layer to it that gives off nothing special or new. That surface is this: verse-chorus from, sameness in dynamic pattern, and rather unchanging acoustic instrumentation. That’s what this music gives off right away, and one can easily realize this without any thought. This also seems to be where many people stop and get their opinions from. I can’t say I’m shocked, but just a little disappointed at the fake intellectual music community in the obvious lack of experience and lack of thought that I’ve seen in judging a work based on the very first layer of structural material the music provides. I’ll admit, sometimes it’s hard to get past the surface, and sometimes the surface itself provides us with lots of substantial material. However, this album had neither. This surface means next to nothing, and it’s completely see through.
For me, it didn’t take long at all to realize what the crux of the album is: the arrivals at the chorus. That is undoubtedly a strong goal for a piece of music to work towards, as pleasant feelings of arrival can make an entire piece worth listening to. It’s a good character of the verse-chorus form. To have an opinion based solely on form, even one that repeats itself, is empty and useless. One must look at how that form is executed, and if the form is used to its strengths. This album, like many others over the last 60 years, sets out to create an engaging string of songs through a repetitive verse-chorus structure, which is very melody driven. With this album in particular, it didn’t have a whole lot of other technical goals. While many other musical aspects staying as constants, everything hinged upon the intrigue of the chorus melody. Some were wonderfully successful, while others failed miserably. That’s the big risk here, but all in all, given what Lavigne’s musical strengths are, I would argue that it was a risk rightfully taken here.
Now that my perspective should be clear, I’ll talk about the music. Here’s what didn’t go well. Things went wrong when the chorus melody simply became extensions of the material in the verses, and when constant quarter note rhythms ruled the line. It was obvious throughout the work that the verses were merely the guiding track towards the potential reward, and didn’t have much in the way of grasping substance. They were basically just different four chord progressions and low-register congenial lines. Most progressions gave off some decent emotional spirit on their own by way of nice chordal substitutions, like the use of ii or even II instead of V and other borrowed chords to break up any monotonous I IV V vi usage. That was a refreshing aspect in the midst of an otherwise mundane build up.
Simply put, when the chorus maintained that mundane material of only using a couple of notes and strict quarter rhythms, the entire song collapsed. This was most obvious in the songs “Birdie” and “Goddess”, where rhythmic accents became uncomfortable and sung notes had no functional purpose within the harmonic structure. These were the moments that also definitely felt the most impersonal and formulaic, as there was no indication that Lavigne tried to make these moments sell as much as they were built up to. Other songs that fall on this side to me include “I Fell In Love With the Devil”, “Bigger Wow”, and “Warrior”.
So, five songs kind of sucked. But five more has selling points worth building towards, and the two others smack dab in the middle were quite outstanding. Here’s what songs like the opening title track did well: a good sentence-like melodic structure using musical periods, some rhythmic variety in both harmonic and melodic accents, and above all, a memorable chorus motive using consonant skips and leaps, highs and lows, and some enchanting moments of dissonance and resolution. Sure, there was some 4 chord monotony to be found, but there’s a reason why those particular progressions are so popular, and it’s because of the potential for great melodic connectivity. Not many do it well anymore, but Lavigne used it to a rather strong degree at times. Lavigne’s greatest specific strength on this album was using accented non-chord tones to begin phrases, then repeating the measure in the melody over a new chord that makes them chord tones. In other words, melodic resolution through harmony. I thought it was quite delightful at times.
The song “Souvenir” is one of my favorite songs of the year so far, and it uses this technique exquisitely in the chorus, along with having great pacing on when to hit the high point in a line and how to decorate that same line moving forward. “It Was In Me” was the other standout, also showing that a shift to slow tempo and reserved piano didn’t diminish the quality of melodic shape when it was well-thought out. Even the song “Dumb Blonde”, which was a stark stylistic shift to a Ting Tings-esque childish dance pop tune with a rap verse stuck in, was quite entertaining thanks to scalar playfulness and reliance on dotted rhythms, as if quoting “Funkytown” a bit. On her day, Lavigne can turn basically any style, structure, lyrical content, or 4 chord progression into a fun, engaging song by her wonderful melodic intuition. Again, it was rewarding here, but also very frustrating that it wasn’t at all consistent.
All in all, in a vacuum, I can’t recommend this album to everyone. As a whole work, the album evened out, the negatives canceled out the positives, and it’s very up and down with a few bright spots. I know I’m always a big proponent of listening to music in the format it was presented in, meaning listening to an album start to finish no matter what. However, I’m making an exception here. It’s not a bad album, but there are definitely skippable moments. Listen to the title track, listen from “Tell Me It’s Over” to “Souvenir”, and throw in “Love Me Insane” at the end. Now that would be a strong album, even if it’s just six songs. Just because the album isn’t great, doesn’t mean these good songs should go unheard. And just because she is who she is and these songs all have a similar structure doesn’t mean you should ignore it. There are some quality songs here. Lavigne can still find the right stuff, even if it isn’t all the time.