Since her debut at age 17 (nine years ago), Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has branded herself as a gritty pop-punk anti-princess. Sass, spunk and attitude permeated her biggest grrl-power hits ("Complicated," "Sk8er Boi," "I'm With You," "Girlfriend"), driving sales of her albums past the 30 million mark.
As she got older, her material got crazier—until rebellious rock 'n' roll clichés all but owned her. And the recent release of "What the H‑‑‑," this disc's devil-may-care lead single, seemed to cement her trajectory.
But Avril's been through a lot since 2007's The Best D‑‑n Thing, including the end of her three-year marriage to Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley. And it turns out that the breezy recklessness of "What the H‑‑‑" doesn't have much to do with the rest of her somber, deeply personal musings about divorce found elsewhere on Goodbye Lullabye.
On "I Love You," Avril tells her ex, "The reason I love you is you." She promises, "Even though we didn't make it through/I am always here for you." "Everybody Hurts" ponders why things turned out as they have and longs for a second chance. "Darlin'" perhaps gets at the core issue of a couple's split: an erosion of trust.
"Remember When" realizes that the breaking of what's supposed to be an eternal bond has serious emotional consequences as it captures the ache of post-divorce loneliness. But Avril refuses to capitulate to despair, affirming, "But I'm not lost." Similarly, "Alice" (written for the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack) insists, "When I fall and hit the ground/I will turn myself around." The album version of that song (which differs lyrically from the soundtrack's) mentions prayer: "Today's the day/That I start to pray."
"Stop Standing There," the album's only undiluted love song, implores a hesitant suitor to confess his affection. "Push" forcefully tells a guy to stop complaining about how hard it can be to make a relationship work ("Maybe you should just shut up/Even when it gets tough/'Cause, baby, this is love").
"What the H‑‑‑" casually pushes the eject button on a lifetime of virtue ("All my life I've been good, but now/I, I, I am thinking what the h‑‑‑/All I want is to mess around") as Avril makes light of sexual promiscuity. "Smile" brags, "You know that I'm a crazy b‑‑ch/ … All I wanna do is lose control." Elsewhere in the song, Avril recalls a boyfriend who spiked her drink and tattooed his name on her after she passed out.
Other profanities, some of them harsh, pop up too: "You don't really give a s‑‑‑/ … 'Cause you're f‑‑‑ing crazy rock 'n' roll." "I Love You" fondly reminisces about how Avril loved getting drunk with her ex ("I like the way you misbehave/When we get wasted"). Avril tells a hesitant prospective boyfriend on "Push," If you f‑‑‑ this up, then go take a hike." The chorus of "Wish You Were Here" begins, "D‑‑n, d‑‑n, d‑‑n/What I'd do to have you here, here, here," a couplet the song repeats seven times.
Goodbye Lullabye should have been named A Tale of Two Avrils. Just when you start to suspect it's going to be nothing but vacuous, profane shout-outs to tired rock 'n' roll tropes, Avril pulls a whiplash-inducing 180, trades in superficial synth-pop for serious acoustic stylings, and wades into an eight-song requiem for her failed marriage. Those tracks are as tender, raw and thoughtful as the first several are brassy, profane and superficial.
She penned the songs about her divorce without writing partners, and she manages to do something with them that's quietly remarkable. Unlike the vast majority of breakup songs, Avril neither wallows in despair nor lashes out angrily against her former husband. (He recorded, mixed and engineered much of the album, and she thanks him profusely in the liner notes.) Instead, these mellow acoustic songs paint a mournful, lamenting picture of a woman trying to sort through why her marriage failed.
What to make, then, of the profane odes to partying at the beginning of the album? They could stand as unhealthy illustrations of how Avril's struggling to process her pain. But I also wonder if they can be chalked up, in part, to what record company execs think Avril's fans want to hear. Several of those tunes, especially three co-written by hitmeister Max Martin, seem calculated to offset the decidedly un-party-like feel of the material that follows. And Avril has essentially said as much in a Billboard interview:
"I found myself in a situation on my fourth record with a bunch of people at the label … coming in on my project and saying, 'Here's what we think you need to do for your record,' and giving me their vision. And radio's so rhythmic/dance-driven right now, and that's not where I was going with this record. So I had to fight and say no."
Too bad she couldn't have fought more forcefully.
A postscript: A series of liner-note pictures seems to parallel the narrative arc of the songs. The album cover pictures Avril looking sad in a wedding dress atop a piano. Inside are several racy pics of her wearing net stockings or handcuffs, after which comes a close-up portrait in which she's wearing a prominent cross necklace, then a shot of her in a more conservative black (mourning?) dress. The last photo shows her smiling in a simple black top and jeans, holding her guitar. It's the only picture in the bunch where she looks genuinely happy.