Avril Lavigne kicked off her last album, 2013’s self-titled LP, with a lead single called “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” which — as you can probably imagine even if you’ve never heard the top 20 hit — celebrated staying up all night, hitting up old haunts and getting drunk on whatever liquor you could get your hands on.
More than a decade removed from the youthful sneer of “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” at the time, Lavigne made it clear that even if she wasn’t directly spinning her bratty teen antics into ear candy, she could at least make songs about remembering that person — and maybe even trying to still be that person. (What is “Hello Kitty,” a song from that same album, if not proof that with enough determination, you too can act like an obnoxious 17-year-old again?) In one away or another, Lavigne’s music always took you back to the summer of 2002 faster than a song literally called “2002” ever could.
But with the first taste of her long-awaited sixth album, “Head Above Water,” Lavigne has gone and made a truly grown-up song. The 33-year-old’s music has certainly never lacked drama, but here, the battle to stay alive isn’t strictly metaphorical: The song directly addresses her struggles with Lyme disease, which have kept her out of the public for the past few years.
“It is also the first song I wrote from my bed during one of the scariest moments of my life,” she wrote in a letter to fans announcing the single. “I had accepted death and could feel my body shutting down. I felt like I was drowning. Like I was going under water and I just needed to come up for air…. Unable to breathe. Praying to God for Him to help me just keep my head above the water.” While lying in her mother’s arms, she started to turn those feelings into lyrics, and eventually brought them to co-writers Travis Clark and Stephan Moccio.
The song they came up with checks few of the boxes of a quintessential Avril Lavigne single. While she hardly shunned slower or more stripped-down material across her five studio albums so far — “I’m With You” is one of the biggest hits of her career — Lavigne’s discography has mostly been defined by upbeat, in-your-face guitar-based pop-punk tunes, and the string-backed piano balladry of “Head Above Water” is a break even from her softer material. That’s certainly appropriate for what she’s singing about — a grave story deserves, well, not the kind of Toni Basil-aping beat you’d find on her 2007 smash “Girlfriend.” But the song could also signal something of a slate-clearing for a singer known for a very specific persona in an industry that has changed seismically since her last album.
There’s a history of pop artists releasing emotionally charged, intimate piano ballads as a way to set the stage for a rebranding following rough chapters in their personal lives: Just look at Demi Lovato, whose 2011 ballad “Skyscraper” helped her break out of the Disney box by seemingly touching upon the “physical and emotional issues” that led her to seek treatment the previous year. Or look at Kesha, who dismantled the hard-partying, dentists’-worst-nightmare character fans met on “TiK ToK” with “Praying,” which alluded to her legal battle against former producer Dr. Luke and teased an album that sounded little like her previous records. Sometimes in pop, you can attract more attention with a whisper than a shout. (Or in Kesha’s case, a totally bonkers high note.)
Of course, it’s way too early to tell whether “Head Above Water” is a proper indication of what the rest of the record sounds like. It’s entirely possible that the song is the musical equivalent to a TV show’s “previously on” segment — just a somber catch-up about where she’s been, with a more conventional single waiting in the wings with hair streaked pink and middle fingers all warmed up. Lavigne has worked on new music with Lauren Christy, who, as one half of The Matrix production team, co-wrote Lavigne’s early hits, and the rest of the album’s rollout could still pick up where Lavigne left off in 2013 (or 2003), both artistically and commercially. But maybe “Head Above Water” is announcing something more than just a comeback; here, it sounds like Lavigne is aiming for a reset.