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Avril Lavigne’s Tacky Head Above Water Fails to Do Her Legacy Justice

In order to understand the themes driving Avril Lavigne’s long-awaited new album Head Above Water, we must first take into account one of the most bizarre, stupid, and strangely enlightening cultural conspiracy theories of our time: the Avril Lavigne death hoax. The theory, first surfaced on a Brazilian fan blog in 2005 and propagated internationally ever since, posits (a): that Lavigne committed suicide in 2003, pushed over the edge by her grandfather’s death the same year, and (b): that Lavigne’s record company then hired a body double named Melissa Vandella to cover for her absence, thus preserving the Canadian singer’s ascendant stardom and resulting profits. In other words, everything we know about Lavigne since 2004’s “Under My Skin” (see what they did there?) onwards has been one big lie.

Obviously, none of that is actually true. According to Buzzfeed, the theory’s original author even said as much on their infamous fan page, writing, “This blog was created to show how conspiracy theories can look true.” But despite its absurdist trappings, the curious case of the Lavigne doppelgänger persists because, like all great memes, it contorts a universally understood truth: in this case, the sexist, Faustian mores of a pop industry that treats female musicians as interchangeable products, rather than authentic human beings. And that’s an existential battle Lavigne has waged for a long time: “I’ve had to fight different people on this journey over those 17 years,” she reflected in a recent interview with the Guardian. “‘You need to do this and it needs to go Top 40’—You make those songs because you have to, but then the stuff that’s the best on record is the album tracks.”

Think of Head Above Water, then, as the moment when Lavigne finally slays her teenage doppelgänger once and for all, emerging as a resilient, mature, capital-A artist—at least in theory. The upbeat, barbed-wire bubblegum of her previous record, 2013’s eponymous LP (which contained ebullient odes to “Hello Kitty” and eternal youth, among other millennial-ready topics) has all but burst, replaced with forlorn ballads and dramatic self-preservation anthems. On paper, the sobering approach scans as promising, given the difficulties Lavigne has weathered in the interim. The past five years saw her divorcing longtime partner Chad Kroeger (though she’ll still defend Nickelback on Twitter), conducting a creative tug-of-war with the heads of Epic Records (she’s since signed with BMG, where she says she’s treated as a “legacy artist”), and, most significantly, enduring a near-deadly fight against Lyme disease (“the battle of my life,” she called it).

Alas, documenting one’s baggage and putting the wreckage to good use are two things entirely—and across nearly all of these 14 songs, Lavigne consistently struggles at one or the other, and sometimes both. For an album intended as revelatory (right down to the artwork, which depicts Lavigne seated on a dark, watery surface, naked save a strategically-placed acoustic guitar)—Head Above Water proves startlingly impersonal throughout, with lyrics approaching Katy Perry-tier tackiness. Taking a technically slack (read: bored-sounding) stab at soul on “I Fell in Love With the Devil,” Lavigne offers the following not-hot take on an abusive relationship: “Got me playin’ with fire / Baby, hand me the lighter / Tastes just like danger / Chaotic anger.” Later, on “Warrior” (one of two sludgy tracks co-penned by Kroeger, with whom Lavigne remains amicable), we get an inspirational chorus so stale it might’ve been composed by an Under Armour T-shirt slogan generator: “And I won’t give up, I will survive, I’m a warrior / And I’m stronger, that’s why I’m alive / I will conquer, time after time / I’ll never falter, I will survive, I’m a warrior.” On every track, the mad-libs are paired with stylistically diverse arrangements—and invariably plodding tempos. The album’s lone sugar spike is “Dumb Blonde,” a rehashed “Girlfriend” that features a phoned-in Nicki Minaj guest verse midway through and, for some reason, a pre-chorus melody yanked from Lipps, Inc.’s “Funky Town.”

In spite of everything, Head Above Water offers one brief moment where Lavigne’s emotional alchemy assumes a bolder musical form that’s properly befitting of her powerhouse vocals and enduring authenticity: the opening stunner of a title track. As fervent strings stir from deep within the mix, Lavigne vows, in her clean, confident soprano, to keep an even keel: “I’ve gotta keep the calm before the storm / I don’t want less, I don’t want more.” Then, a epic, stadium-sized chorus sweeps in, and the stoic facade crumbles on the spot to reveal a version of Avril we’ve never seen before—the girl who promised to never grow up, desperately clinging to life through heavenly grace. “God, keep my head above water,” she cries, the anguish palpable instead of rote. “Don’t let me drown / This gets harder.” If only the rest of the album proved equally divine.