Rumors of the suddenly adult, mellow, mature, and/or acoustic nature of Avril Lavigne’s new album are, thank God, slightly overstated.
Or maybe it just depends on how you define “adult.” The cover of Goodbye Lullaby has the recently divorced Lavigne sitting atop a black piano in a vaguely bridal dress, arranged in one of those casual album-cover poses that winds up looking like some kind of singer-songwriter yoga. And the album begins with an elegant minute and a half twinkle called “Black Star,” which is essentially a jingle for her fragrance line of the same name. As first impressions go, that’s a pretty accurate summary of the odd position Lavigne has been in for a couple of albums now trying to cross the line between being someone who seems believable atop a skateboard to someone you’d believe might have a pleasant odor.
She’s not entirely giving up on the former ratty teenage thing: There are at least two solid bursts of old-school Avril snot on this record, one of them great and the other such an alarming wreck of self-parody that I can’t stop going back and giggling at it. You can probably thank her label for the great one — the single, “What the Hell” — which is possibly the all-time best and most efficient of her glossy radio-bait songs. From “Sk8er Boi” onward, it’s been hard to have a response to those that’s not roughly the response a baby has when shiny, shiny keys are jangled in front of its face.
The other one’s called “Smile,” and it bears some unpacking. For instance: It begins with the line “You know I’m a crazy bitch / I do what I want when I feel like it.” Ah, but then she meets a guy who’s “crazy rock and roll” enough to handle her, and this becomes a song about the ecstatic rush of new love. (Tabloid followers will recognize the crazy-cool new love in question as reality-TV star Brody Jenner, whose rock-and-roll qualities are evidently too awesome to be registered by conventional cameras.) It’s the second verse that’s confusing: They wake up with new tattoos, Avril says she blacked out last night, she asks, “What did you put in my drink?” — and then she says she would do it all over again, which makes her sound like the sole woman on the planet who enjoys having a guy drug her.
You know how, if you ask a young enough child where babies come from, you might get an answer that’s pointing in the right direction but has all the details and mechanics hilariously wrong? “Smile” seems like the answer you’d get if you asked the wrong kid about being a cool, wild adult woman instead: “You’d have a crazy rocker boyfriend!” Like who? “Like that guy from The Hills!” What would you do with him? “Get tattoos!” What else? “Make out! Get wasted!” On what? “Those bad things adults have — you know, roofies!”
Granted, Lavigne’s always at her most entertaining when she’s easiest to laugh at — I’m pretty sure the first moment I liked her was when I noticed the hilarious, vaguely English accent she deployed to sing one phrase on “Complicated.” Besides, most of Goodbye Lullaby is solidly non-ridiculous. It’s speedy, energetic, straightforward, gleaming pop-rock with, yes, lots of acoustic guitars and big choruses and adult poise. On “Push,” Lavigne works that blaring yelp near the top of her vocal range; between that and the drum loops, she winds up sounding like the always-adult Alanis Morissette. The songs, the hooks, the production here: They’re pretty great, actually.
Less great are Lavigne’s lyrics, the flatness of which is almost depressing enough to inspire head-shaking about the fate of language and communication in our shared future. There are songs on this album that were originally written when Lavigne was in her mid-teens, but you’d be hard-pressed to sit down with a lyric sheet and pick them out from the songs written now — by a 26-year-old professional musician who, since beginning this album, has divorced the guy who was helping her produce it and fallen in love with someone new. What terms and phrases are used to talk about her emotional state? “It’s okay to be afraid.” “It feels so right to have you standing by my side.” “Feels like nothing really matters anymore.” “I know it’s a drag.” This isn’t just being sincere, or conversational, or leaving the songs universal enough for anyone to relate to them: It’s a bizarre paucity of language and a constant literal-mindedness that’s great for telling mean stories about high-school boys but totally defeated by the task of conveying adult emotion. “Goodbye,” her ballad about love’s end, just says, “I have to go and leave you alone / But always know that I love you so.” It’s like a Dear John mad lib, only with no spaces to fill in.
We’re always captivated by watching tween stars hit puberty, knowing there’s a rough transition coming — the hormones and growth spurts will arrive, and an unlucky kid will turn into an awkward goon in public, stumbling around trying to stay adorable. But at least that’s nature; we know it can’t be helped. What about the big change after that? The one where Platonic Teen pop stars are forced to negotiate a tricky, public, and ridiculously self-conscious route from seeming good at being teenagers to seeming like equally cool twentysomethings? (Women are forced to do this, anyway; lots of men get away with acting like it’s brave and worth celebrating that they’re eternally, fundamentally 18.) They have to keep finding the right poses, words, and images to make it feel like they’ve grown correctly, all without seeming too phony about it — something you’d think would be easy for us to relate to, considering how similar it is to what we wind up doing in private. It’s a shame Lavigne’s attempts to do that leave her so lost for words. They should be interesting. She’s always been good at playing twinkly pop princess and punky skate-rat at the same time; why should it be weird to slip “emotional adult” into the mix? And why should we have to squint and overthink things and get all meta to see what’s so fascinating about the way she’s trying?