I’ve always had a relative soft spot for Avril Lavigne, not because her career is built from consistently solid albums (in fact, Lavigne’s discography is infamously spotty, marked by great pop singles and not much else), but because I always felt like she was unique in the landscape of pop music. It’s not just that she worked with Butch Walker on pretty much all of her best songs—though that certainly didn’t hurt—but rather that her sassy punk image and her loud, distinct personality always showed through in her songs. Lavigne was at her best on her second full-length—2004’s Under My Skin—where a dark pop style (on the Walker-penned “My Happy Ending”) and a rebellious tone (the other big single, “Don’t Tell Me,” which radiated a genuine girl power message that not many pop stars have been able to replicate since)—set her apart from the other pop music on the radio at the time. Other than Pink (who, big surprise, also utilized Walker as her go-to co-writer and producer), no other female pop starlet of the early 2000s gave off the same in-control confidence. Here was a pop singer/songwriter who was going to make the music that she wanted to and do it her own way, damn anyone—especially the label—who tried to tell her otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, Lavigne lost a lot of her appeal when she sacrificed the sass and attitude in favor of sounding just like everybody else. On 2006’s The Best Damn Thing, Lavigne enlisted the help of superstar producers and songwriters like Dr. Luke, Kara DioGuardi, and Rob Cavallo to make a slicker, more streamlined pop record. The radio world was reeling from Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, a monumental mid-decade success story that had brought both Luke and DioGuardi—as well as another radio titan by the name of Max Martin—to the forefront of pop songwriting. My distaste for Luke is well documented at this point, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole here, but suffice so say that The Best Damn Thing’s two biggest singles (“Girlfriend,” the peppy eighties aping lead-off track, and “Keep Holding On,” the flavorless power ballad closer) did nothing to bring out Lavigne’s strong personality. The next album, 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby was even worse, relying mostly on Lavigne’s own writing post-heartbreak, a move that would normally bring out the best and barest work in an artist’s career, but one that left Lavigne feeling more bland, boring, and faceless than ever before.
Tellingly, Lavigne’s fifth album is a self-titled effort, meant to indicate the start of a new era for the pop songstress, and indeed, right from the beginning, Lavigne is back in her sassy comfort zone. On the chorus of the lead-off track—a jaunty single titled “Rock N Roll”—she proclaims, “Just put up a middle finger to the sky/Let ‘em know that we’re still rock n roll,” and on the next song, she’s “running down the street, yelling ‘kiss my ass.’” In other words, Lavigne is right back to being the immature, vitriolic sk8er girl she was 10 years ago, and Avril Lavigne benefits remarkably from the transaction.
That’s not to say this album is spotless. Lavigne has mostly ditched the bland balladry of Goodbye Lullaby at this point (though the closing ballads, “Falling Fast” and “Hush Hush” are similar bores), while Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Kara DioGuardi, and the rest of their generic pop songwriting compatriots are nowhere to be found. Instead, we have to deal with the overbearing influence of Chad Kroeger, Lavigne’s new husband. (He’s also known in some circles as “that fucking douchebag from Nickelback.”) Kroeger gets co-writing credits on eight of this record’s 13 songs, and while his presence is often drowned out by the rest of the songwriters on board (of which there are many), his poison can’t be drained entirely. On “Let Me Go,” Lavigne and Kroeger duet over a maudlin, comically overproduced arrangement of strings and acoustic guitars. From the moment Kroeger lets forth his first constipated vocal groan, “Let Me Go” is the absolute nadir of Lavigne’s discography.
Luckily, Kroeger’s vocals are quarantined to that one track, and Avril Lavigne spends the rest of its runtime working hard to make up for the mistake (though the album’s other duet, with nineties shock rock monstrosity Marilyn Manson on “Bad Girl,” is nearly as painful to sit through). As happens with many pop albums like this one, the best songs are up front. Butch Walker unfortunately stays far away—it’s the first Lavigne album he hasn’t been involved with since 2004—but Boys Like Girls’ Martin Johnson steps in to fill his shoes, and Johnson’s style—while far from original—is a perfect match with Lavigne’s rebellious attitude. For instance, the Johnson co-penned “Here’s to Never Growing Up” is a rousing anthem of a track that could appeal well to the same audience that turned fun.’s “We Are Young” or Taylor Swift’s “22” into chart standards. The chorus namedrops Radiohead (for some reason) and the verses pay tribute to drinking, staying up all night, basking in the warmth of bad decisions, and making a lot of noise in the process. It’s nothing revolutionary, but should play well with the college crowd.
The other Johnson contribution, a nostalgic highlight called “17,” sees the Boys Like Girls frontman recycling ideas from his own music (“The Great Escape,” “Thunder,” and “The First Time” all come to mind), but the song’s small town summertime atmosphere is still nothing short of infectious. Similarly, the acoustic-based “Bitchin’ Summer” is Avril’s play for next year’s “ubiquitous song of the summer” title, and while it actually hits a lot of the same notes as “17” and “Here’s to Never Growing Up” (in less successful fashion, no less), it’s still not difficult to see the song revitalizing Lavigne’s image as a career hitmaker.
For its first four tracks, Avril Lavigne has a very distinct theme and style. “Rock N Roll,” “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” “17,” and “Bitchin’ Summer” are all songs about being young, wild, and crazy, about feeling infinite and acting like anything is possible. These are songs for college parties or summer bonfires in a post-high-school life, and while that kind of thematic territory might feel a bit bizarre for an artist who is almost 30, it’s still arguably the best decision this album makes. Songs like those four, derivative as they are, will always have an audience and will always be relatable, and if Avril Lavigne hewed closely to that same not-terribly-ambitious, but wholly enjoyable vein throughout, it would probably be Lavigne’s biggest and best record to date.
Instead, Avril Lavigne’s greatest strength and weakness is that it isn’t content to rest in the same vein for 13 straight tracks. Beyond the aforementioned pair of ill-advised duets, there’s nothing really “bad” here, but the album certainly loses steam when it trades the gentle wistfulness of songs like “17” and “Bitchin’ Summer” for the enjoyable but generic Katy Perry pop of “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” or “Sippin’ on Sunshine.” “Hello Heartache,” meanwhile, begins with a promising background vocal hook, recalling the baroque darkness of Florence + the Machine’s last record, but ends up getting grounded by another boring and generic chorus.
The biggest leap of faith is made on “Hello Kitty,” a trippy patchwork of EDM and pop that pays loving tribute to Lavigne’s sizable Japanese following. It’s a left-turn that most probably won’t appreciate (I myself probably won’t ever listen to it again), but it briefly takes the album to an extremely adventurous and idiosyncratic place, single-handedly spicing up a dull midsection in the process. Unfortunately, the album gets less interesting as it goes, tapering off in disappointing fashion after a strong start. In other words, it’s not going to be a new favorite album for anyone other than Avril Lavigne’s most ardent admirers, but a handful of great summer mixtape songs and a few other exercises in mindless pop fun are still enough to make Avril Lavigne the eponymous singer’s best record in nine years. That might not be saying much, but it’s a step in the right direction.