Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

Avril Lavigne – Head Above Water

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[Video]
[7.25]
Alex Clifton: I am admittedly a fan of songs that come after Major Life Changes; in this case, Avril’s first real single in five years comes after a nasty battle with Lyme disease. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard from her, either. I associate Avril’s music with brash brattiness, which in a lot of ways makes this more heartbreaking; I see a lot of parallels with Kesha’s “Praying” in that they’re both sweeping ballads that show off the singer’s vocals while also addressing a difficult subject. I’ve never heard Avril sound so scared or vulnerable like this, and that includes all the angsty teenage songs where it felt like she was skittering around telling us her real feelings. At times, “Head Above Water” becomes weighted down with its own production — I think it could’ve done to be a bit more stripped down — but it still remains a song that stopped me dead in my tracks when I first heard it, and that counts for something.
[7]

Anthony Easton: This is not the kind of work that I expect from Lavigne, and it is very much a Praise song even before God is mentioned near the end. Even the image of the altar has a certain, desperate fervor. I am always moved by this call for capitulation and for rescue, this uncynical call for help. Extra points for the crashing piano, extra extra points for the slight Kelly Clarkson edge to the whole enterprise.
[8]

Taylor Alatorre: I don’t presume to know Avril Lavigne’s precise religious beliefs, and it’s likely better that I don’t. But in this I hear the passion of the doubting faithful — those who are not sure if there is a God listening on the other side but desperately need there to be. “Keep my head above water” is sung with the intensity of someone who knows drowning is a real possibility, and the congenitally hopeful CCM structure is tempered with a distinct post-grunge edge. Above all, it’s refreshing to hear a mainstream pop song in which God is addressed directly, as a proper noun rather than an interjection.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: As someone who nearly drowned in the Pacific Ocean during a service trip with my church ten years ago, I’d like to think that “Head Above Water” is the perfect song for remembering that experience. In reality, it more succinctly captures how one’s survival shapes any reflection on such an event. As a song birthed from Avril Lavigne’s fight with Lyme disease, “Head Above Water” is sung with a conviction that knows she’ll survive. Despite any doubts she may speak of here, her singing is an act that turns her desire to believe into actual belief (or security, or peace). She may not have willed her survival into existence but a song like this shows how submission to something bigger than oneself can sometimes be beautiful. But oh how thin is the line between humility and denigration of self, between recognizing one’s smallness and a stoking of self-hatred. “Head Above Water” succeeds because it feels so far removed from the world itself to invite such cynicism or mistrust; it places you in a direct channel with God. The verses employ a chord progression that recalls various CCM songs’ attempts at sounding like contemporary hymns. It grants the song a formal, ceremonious aura that’s rounded out by a stadium-ready chorus. There, the drums pound like a series of crashing waves while Lavigne’s voice sounds like she’s controlling them at one moment and caught inside them at another: a concise portrait of life’s unexpected downturns. Having been through all this, she’s announced that she’s “stronger than ever and looking forward to sharing [her] renewed voice and energy.” It turns out these waves weren’t just a symbol for tribulation, but of newfound life: a sort of regenerative baptism.
[7]

Alfred Soto: She co-wrote “Head Above Water” with Stephan Moccio, who specializes in loud productions, and I appreciate her delight in loud, uncomplicated emotions (she was an artist my students a decade ago helped me get beyond “Girlfriend” and “Complicated”). She sounds fine. The chorus drop is a return to the “I Knew You Were Trouble” well.
[6]

Julian de Valliere: When I was younger, I read an Avril Lavigne interview in which she shared that she often couldn’t bring herself to get any writing done if she wasn’t being forced into a studio. I remember being so taken aback by this information at the time. Being so used to hearing songwriters talk about these random flashes of inspiration, and the constant rush to capture those ideas before they faded from memory, the knowledge that one of my favourite artists had to literally will herself to write the songs I loved seemed almost like a betrayal. Now, as I sit here trying to translate my thoughts into words for a fourth consecutive hour, I understand her situation better. Unfortunately or not, some people not only have to push harder than others, but they also find it harder to do that pushing as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to — just that the thought of the struggle alone can be quite dissuasive. But even when she’s not putting in all the effort, Avril still has a real knack for pop; her approach of settling on a certain emotion and then slamming every button necessary to crank that all the way to a hundred has delivered us many a banger over the last sixteen years. When she goes for greatness though, the difference is so stark that it’s hard to fully embrace the former — even if that is well above functional. It’s that extra stuff that makes Under My Skin and The Best Damn Thing the albums they are, that makes cuts like “Remember When” and “17” out-dazzle the tracks surrounding them. It’s what makes “Head Above Water” such a jolt to the senses. After two albums that seemed to signify a pop star being worn down by compromise, label disputes, and decreasing dividends for all her efforts, “Head Above Water” marks a change of heart. Suddenly, Avril’s broaching territories she’s never attempted before — lyrically, vocally, and structurally. The song itself, with all its undisguised fear, is a monumental emotional moment on its own — but to recognise that, and then understand the sheer force of the terror that must have led her to this change makes the experience of hearing “Head Above Water” far more powerful than just its engineered elements could manage. It’s a bittersweet triumph, and one that feels strange to truly celebrate — but despite her struggles, and because of them, Avril’s pushed herself to greatness, once again.
[10]

Rebecca A. Gowns: As I opened up this video, my toddler leaned over and hit my keyboard rapidly, and ended up making the song play at twice the speed. Suddenly, it was transformed from a plodding inspirational pop ballad into a hot inspirational dance track. D-d-d-DJ Toddler! *airhorns*
[4]

Tobi Tella: I’m a sucker for cheesy power pop, and so one of the queens of the genre Avril Lavigne returning from her hiatus with her best song in years is a very exciting prospect. The reason for her absence being her struggle with Lyme disease gives the song infinitely more power as well; it gets kind of morbid when you realize the song is literally about not dying. Don’t let her drown, pop radio!
[8]

Reader average: [7] (5 votes)

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3 Responses to “Avril Lavigne – Head Above Water”

  1. There’s a lot of gorgeous writing in here but I also laughed my head off at Rebecca’s blurb because playing songs on the wrong speed on YouTube is one of my favourite pastimes

  2. I reached “*airhorns*” and could hear the “br-brr-brr-brr-BRRRRRRRRRRR” in my head and died A+ blurb

  3. Meant to blurb this – never go to grad school, kids; I am so tired – but tl;dr: I had Lyme disease, I love this song.

    a vague impressionistic account of the blurb I was going to write: this song makes me feel like I’m 15 again, sitting in a hot bathtub, desperately trying to get my joint pain under control. I felt like my joints were eating themselves from the inside, and I didn’t know if I’d ever not be in pain. I thought a lot about just slipping under the water, not sure I could face another day, another year of the endless unremitting pain without cease.

    I lived. Barely. And so it’s an [8] from me.

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