Sunday, November 3, 2013

album review: 'avril lavigne' by avril lavigne

Okay, time for another confession: I used to be a huge fan of Avril Lavigne.

I'm serious. Her first album Let Go in 2002 is a great album and one that I really enjoy. In the past, I've made the comparison of my enjoyment of Avril Lavigne with everyone else's enjoyment of Taylor Swift: it's shallow music with some real songwriting talent behind it on occasion, but even when it's not, it can still kind of work for you. It definitely helped matters that Avril Lavigne had one big strength in her favour when it came to be a pop rock singer: she actually could convey more than one emotion. Sure, she could be bratty and obnoxious, but she also was expressive and could sound lovestruck or vulnerable or desperate and that gave her a ton of humanity that made her preferable to some real 'riot grrls'. And like with Taylor Swift, you could buy into the fact that her songs were written by someone her age. Was she ever the kind of feminist icon or a girl with a real punk edge? Well, no, but she wasn't trying to be.

But then again, I wasn't surprised when she went in a darker direction with 2004's Under My Skin. It was darker, it was rougher, it was angrier... and it wasn't as good. Don't get me wrong, I still really like the album and 'My Happy Ending' and 'Complicated' are better songs than they have any right to be, but objectively it's not great. What it led to was a change in label and...

Yeah, here's where the Avril Lavigne story takes a controversial turn because, well, she sold out. Now calm down, selling out isn't always a bad thing - you can still make good music after selling out and The Best Damn Thing had a few great songs on it. However, like with Taylor Swift's Red from earlier last year, there was a distinctive loss of personality and a definite shift towards the mainstream that didn't always favour her best elements. In particular, it was a distinctly less 'mature' album, as you could tell Avril was trying to play to a teen pop-punk audience who was, well, my age. But even at seventeen, I soured on 'Girlfriend' almost immediately because it cranked up the bratty obnoxiousness to eleven and had nothing in the instrumentation or lyrics to back it up.

And really, those problems extended to her next album Goodbye Lullaby, and despite the fact that Avril wrote the majority of the material on that album, it definitely had a shift in focus to sullen, increasingly bland relationship songs that were a pale reflection of the material that she had done before. Avril herself admitted that it was more difficult to write these sorts of introspective songs, and considering most were directed at her ex-husband, I can kind of understand why. Regardless of that, it was also her weakest album and a sign that perhaps Avril Lavigne was running out of ideas.

But now she's back this year with Chad Kroeger as a husband (ugh) and a self-titled album (five into her career... sigh). Could she recapture some of that spark she had from her early days?

Well, maybe. Let me begin by saying that this album is probably her 'best' since the early 2000s, and it's better than both The Best Damn Thing and Goodbye Lullaby - but what's bizarre about it is that it's better because I don't think Avril is trying as hard. This album is a strictly pop rock record that's very much trying to capture the 'good old days' for Avril Lavigne, specifically that sound of the early 2000s, all with a slick modern package. But is it any good overall? Well, it was better than I expected, but there are a number of elements holding it back from being a truly great or even completely functional album. Yeah, it's good, but the elements that don't work really don't work.

Let's start with Avril Lavigne herself - well, for the most part, she's pretty damn solid. She certainly sounds more engaged on this album than she did on Goodbye Lullaby, and it helps they peeled back the Autotune a bit to let her naturally strong voice through. It helps matters that Avril is one of the few female singers who casually swears in pop music and doesn't make it sound forced, or who even bothers to have anything close to a real rock edge. And while she never really pushes her delivery to extremes, she still has a solid voice with a ton of personality.

But the second we get to the instrumentation, the problems start in earnest. To be honest, I can admit I'm something of a sucker for the thick percussion-driven, harder-edged pop music that has become popular this year, and like with The Backstreet Boys, Avril Lavigne is a good fit for it - she has a lot of energy and vocal personality, so she's never overwhelmed or overshadowed by her instrumentation (see counterexample: Katy Perry). But the problems here are that the songs are less bad than bland, mostly due to weak melody lines and a lack of solid instrumental hooks. I'll give the album credit for having more of a rock edge than most pop albums released this year, but the electric guitars are often pressed against the back of the mix and not allowed to get any significant swell (with one exception I'll discuss later). But frankly, I'd take the guitar-driven tracks over those driven by synths, which sound entirely too flat and generic to be memorable (although 'Hello Heartache' goes in the opposite direction and sounds like a more bombastic version of a Lorde song), to say nothing of the fragments of dubstep that occasionally pop up and do nothing for the mix. The production, thankfully, is good, although I really have to question why Avril's voice is being overdubbed - she doesn't need it and doesn't add anything but additional volume to the mix.

But really, nobody comes to Avril Lavigne for instrumentation, they come for the lyrics. Now most of you probably already know that her husband Chad Kroeger of Nickelback was helping her write songs, but believe it or not, this isn't precisely a bad thing because as a lyricist, Kroeger has actually been getting better since 'This Is How You Remind Me' (which Avril covers on this album's bonus tracks for no good reason). And after all, the strength of Avril's lyrics have always been in simplicity: she's very good at using few words to encapsulate a lot of material, and her best songs operate in this vein. Her best written song on this album is the slow, painfully sad 'Give You What You Like', which takes a pretty simple concept of a one night stand and overloads it with more nuance than you'd expect. However, this writing methodology can lead to a distinctive lack of lyrical personality on a broader scale, which was the big problem with Goodbye Lullaby and it returns here to a lesser extent. This is because this album's theme materializes very quickly: dealing with the passage of time and growing up - or rather, the refusal to do so.

Yeah, this is where the album enters strange territory, because not only do elements of the music harken back to rougher days instrumentally, the lyrics definitely are backwards focused to Avril's younger days, so much so that upon listening to 'Here's To Never Growing Up', I was tempted to brand Avril Lavigne with the same Peter Pan complex that Billie Joe Armstrong probably has. But there are a few things that work in Avril's favour here, the first being that a step towards her previous, better material is something her fans before the sellout have wanted for some time, and on a lyrical level, it kind of works. And look, pop music has always been about appealing to youth, and Avril Lavigne's knack for catchy, 'school's out' summer songs works in her favour and she can still believably play a teenager musically - she's actually good at it. However, if she was looking to emulate teenage girls, she probably shouldn't have included 'Hello Kitty' on this album, one of the most juvenile and culturally offensive song to Asians I've heard this year (not to mention just sounding awful). I mean, yikes.

Granted, that song isn't the only turd on this album that recalls the past, the other big one being 'Let Me Go' featuring her husband. It's a punishingly dull song that recalls bad Evanescence tracks - and wouldn't you know it, but a major contributing songwriter on this album is David Hodges, the former keyboardist of Evanescence! Now to be fair, that's not the only callback to the past on this album, the other huge one being 'Bad Girl', a song featuring late-90s industrial metal artist Marilyn Manson - and you know what, it's actually pretty damn awesome, half because it has a ton of energy and more of an edge than the entire album combined, and half because it's strikingly reminiscent of 'Call Me' by Blondie in the melody line, and that can't be bad. It reminded me a lot of 'Dirty Love' by Ke$ha and Iggy Pop last year on Warrior, or one of the many pop-rock songs on Natalia Kills' album Trouble earlier in September (which has only grown on me significantly), and while this album isn't close to either those, it's still a welcome change and a sign of an Avril of which I definitely want to see more.

Ugh, look, you've all probably made up your minds already whether or not the new Avril Lavigne album is worth your time, but for what it's worth, I didn't hate it - to be honest, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I think she's a better fit for modern pop radio with this style than most, and she makes it work for her. Yes, it's unnerving to see that Avril is steadfastly refusing to grow up or write more mature music, but considering her attempts with that on her last album, I actually don't have much of a problem with her sticking to the anthematic shallow pop she does well. Plus, she's one of the few female pop rock acts that we have who has real charisma and attitude, even if she doesn't have a lot to say. Are songs like 'Bad Girl' and 'Here's To Never Growing Up' (a song of which I'm a little embarrassed to say I kind of really like) shallow and occasionally kind of stupid? Oh yeah, but in this case, they work. That said, the album isn't quite consistently strong enough to stop the bad, and there are some really bad songs here - and, like the last Avril Lavigne album, it runs out of energy by the last two tracks. I'm giving this record a 6/10 and a tentative recommendation. If you're an Avril fan and you like modern pop production, you'll probably like this, but if you don't like either... well, check out 'Bad Girl' or 'Give You What You Like', they're both worth your time, and then skip the rest.

And Avril, speaking as an old fan... if you want to go back to the past, reach back to rock. Not your husband's brand of it, mind you, but perhaps back to punk or grunge or even metal. You might find them to be better fits than you'd expect. Just don't turn into a new Evanescence - nobody, and I mean nobody needs that.

1 comment:

  1. I'm seeing an Evanescence pure hatred in this review. Not only because of the last paragraph but also because you mention that you dislike Under My Skin which was dubbed to be an Evanescence-inspired album haha. Well, I don't care about Evanescence really, I only care about Avril Lavigne. I agree about you. The songs in Avril Lavigne are great fit on radio but it sucks, no stations want to play them. I don't know what happened after the selling-out phase happened because even if she sold-out, she lost it quick. Girlfriend was her last song to have real impact on the world. Everything that followed was just left in the dust. I wish Give You What You Like or Bad Girl be released quick to save her from becoming a nobody. I hope those songs finally give her that 2nd shot at mainstream she so deserves.