Avril Lavigne, ‘Avril Lavigne’ (Album Review)


“I don’t care if I’m a misfit, I like it better than the hipster bullshit. I am the motherfucking princess!” Avril Lavigne proudly declares, middle finger hoisted in the air, on her latest single, “Rock N Roll.” It’s both entirely embarrassing and enthralling all at the same time — and that’s the beauty of Avril Lavigne in 2013.

An artist doesn’t necessarily have to evolve (not everyone can be Madonna, of course), but Avril Lavigne has remained almost impressively frozen in time as a pop star: The heavy mascara wearin’, Converse rockin’, middle finger wavin’, Hot Topic wearin’ anti-pop “punk” princess persona that debuted on the pop scene with 2002’s Let Go is still very much the one that we’re seeing today. 

It’s fitting then that her latest studio album is self-titled, because it feels like one of the most consistent representations of the Avril Lavigne brand yet.

After the release of her final RCA record Goodbye Lullaby, a collection of (mostly) somber tunes that saw the singer-songwriter stripping back the faux-punk styling of 2007’s The Best Damn Thing for something more serious, she wasted no time heading back into the studio to deliver something a bit more…well, fun.

Avril Lavigne takes the winning formulas of her biggest Top 40 pop radio productions (think the brattiness of “Sk8er Boi,” “Girlfriend” and “What The Hell”), and mixes it with the angst of her most devastating moments (“Nobody’s Home,” “Losing Grip”), resulting in a solid emo-pop record from start to finish.

On paper, the record looks dreadfully uncool: After all, it was largely co-produced and co-penned alongside David Hodges, formerly of Evanescence (no tea, no shade — Fallen remains a classic!), and Avril’s own husband Chad Kroeger, the much-loathed frontman of the universally despised-yet-still massively successful Nickelback. And yet, it’s packed full of hits.

The album’s lead single, “Here’s To Never Growing Up,” was clearly meant as a response to Taylor Swift‘s giddily annoying break-up anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but with a taste of that oh-so-trendy YOLO-pop that’s been plaguing radio for years now. The Martin Johnson-produced track revels in all of Avril’s bratty teenage antics, singing Radiohead at the top of her lungs (does anyone actually do that?) across a mighty stomp and anthemic chants. It also sounds exactly like what “Complicated” would sound like if produced in 2013.

But the album’s lead single is nothing compared to the massive (and tragically ignored) “Rock N Roll,” the year’s most underappreciated “rebel”-pop record. From its sickening earworm of a chorus (“When it’s you and me, we don’t need no one else to tell us who to be!”) to the thundering drums and fiery guitar licks, “Rock N Roll” feels like what “Till The World Ends” was to Britney‘s “Hold It Against Me.” Also, it was produced by The Cardigans‘ guitarist Peter Svensson — of course every millisecond of the power-pop production is catchy. Frankly, it should have been a worldwide smash.

“17” is essentially the unsung “Teenage Dream” of 2013, as Avril nostalgically revisits a teenage love affair atop a propulsive guitar strum — those halcyon days of yesterday, stealing beer, making out in the backseat of cars and jumping into the neighbor’s pool. Not only are the lyrics perfectly evocative of a grade school kind of summer lovin’, but the actual song production is major. “Acting stupid for fun, all we needed is love / That’s the way it’s supposed to be!” she declares on the undeniably huge, dreamy hook of a chorus.

As with “17,” this album was clearly made to cure that summertime sadness: Bitchin’ Summer” catches Avril getting drunk with friends and soaking up the sun — rebelliously, obviously. There’s even a speak-sung rap section toward the end, as Avril really flaunts her ‘tude: “Right near the beach the party don’t stop, if we don’t get harassed by the motherfuckin’ cops,” she cockily brags. (Avril’s so fucking edgy, right?) “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” plays like a girlish take on a lost Blink 182 summer anthem, while “Sippin’ On Sunshine” provides a poolside jam with massive, soaring melodies and lyrics that are so bubbly and bright, they could easily double as a Sesame Street theme song (“Hey, what a beautiful day!”). Who knew she could be so…peppy?

The singer clearly had a blast while recording Avril: She lets her freak flag fly higher than ever on her Marilyn Manson pairing “Bad Girl,” a manic, unapologetically smutty track that sees Avril bending over and begging to be punished by Marilyn — err, “daddy.” “You can fuck me and then play me!” she growls. It’s pretty sexual, but happily self-aware — Avril’s chuckling at the end makes it feel like this song was just a dare between two friends. Still, it’s way more overt than Avril’s ever been in the past, giving off some Runaways live wire punk rock energy. Almost punk rock energy. (Let’s not get crazy here.)

But the moment is short lived, as she veers into completely different kind of insanity altogether: “Hello Kitty” is an off-the-walls EDM-infused stomper. Conjuring Gwen Stefani‘s bouncy, Japanese-minded Love.Angel.Music.Baby (plus a Fashionable Dubstep Breakdown for good measure!), Avril lets her love affair for the beloved Japanese mascot go wild across pulsing beats and sputtering electronica as she shouts outs hilarious commands: “Like a fat kid on a pack of smarties / Someone chuck a cupcake at me!”

Of course, a slaphappy Avril is always fun to hear, but it’s when she turns the angst on that Avril Lavigne truly shines — or well, broods.

One of the album’s best moments is “Hello Heartache,” a swirling, anthemic guitar-led midtempo that plays like the grown-up, emotionally twisted version of her 2002 anthem, “Complicated” — and a touch of Alanis Morissette‘s anger: “I was champagne, you were Jameson / Every bad thing we did so much fun,” she laments on the kiss-off track. The song’s bridge is the best part: “Do you know? Do you get? It’s just goodbye, it’s not the end,” she pleads before unleashing her best anguished yelp.

The bleary-eyed, broken ballad “Give You What You Like,” however, is easily the album’s most haunting song. “Please wrap your drunken arms around me and I’ll let you call me yours tonight,” she calmly croons above a chilly guitar strum. It’s such a tortured track, sort of like an Evanescence classic a la “My Immortal” (David Hodges co-produced, no wonder!), as Avril tries desperately to find solace in the darkness with her shadowy, drunken beau.

Almost every ballad on the album is genuinely excellent, though: The featherlight “Falling Fast” allows Avril to fall preciously in love above the light, wispy production. “Hush Hush” is equally pretty, gliding across a gentle piano melody and dramatic strings as Avril lets go for good in the final moments: “So go on, live your life / So go on, say goodbye / So many questions, but I don’t ask why,” she resigns sadly.

The only real clunker? The duet with her husband (and, annoyingly, the latest single) “Let Me Go,” which limps along a fairly predictable, Nickelback-lite (ugh) pop-rock drifting melody that doesn’t do much to impress — it sounds like it was written with the soundtrack of some epic animated tale in mind. Considering how many gorgeous tracks the couple worked on together for the album, it’s a bit surprising that their actual duet fails to inspire, but hey — perhaps there’s only room for one diva on vocal duty.

Avril Lavigne isn’t particularly innovative, but it is an immediately more enjoyable listen than most of the underwhelming offerings by pop’s more buzzed-about princesses. The ballads have substantial depth, and the bangers play like a better, Hot Topic-revised edition of Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream. In fact, it’s one of the strongest pop records of 2013 — not that the general public will know.

As for why there’s been such slim promo for the album? Well, that’s L.A. Reid‘s Epic Records for you. Bonnie McKee? Ciara? Fifth Harmony? Cher Lloyd? Which talented artist hasn’t Reid royally screwed under his watch? The campaign didn’t reach its full potential — but not for lack of substance.

There’s something fascinating (or just plain irritating, depending on your stance) about hearing all of this teenage defiance from a married 29-year-old artist who, by society’s standards, probably should have outgrown this phase of her life by now and wiped all that smudged mascara away. But you know what? Fuck ’em, seriously.

When it sounds this good, who cares? Here’s to never growing up, Avril.

‘Avril Lavigne’ was released on November 5. (iTunes)

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