Avril Lavigne’s new album Goodbye Lullaby lacks the roller-skating euphoria of her last one, 2007’s The Best Damn Thing. Lullaby only has two rabid cheerleader rants, where Best Damn Thing was full of them. Though Lullaby boasts plenty of slow-to-midtempo love songs, none of them are what you might term “power ballads”. They’re more what you might term “four-chord guitar ballads on serious themes”. Tunes like “Everybody Hurts” and “I Love You” are solid, but they don’t attain the gloopy nirvana of Avril’s 2007 hit “When You’re Gone”. That’s unexpected, because the supporting cast on Lullaby is pretty much the same as on Best Damn Thing: co-writer Evan Taubenfeld, producers Butch Walker and ex-Mr.-Lavigne Deryck Whibley. The only difference is in the Swedish writer-producer department; Avril’s traded in Dr. Luke for Max Martin and Shellback.
Martin and ‘Back, last heard on Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”, handle the album’s two bad-girl anthems, the most interesting things here. In lead single “What the Hell”, Avril makes out with her boyfriend’s friend and then makes fun of said boyfriend for getting upset, offering the excuse, “ALL! My LIFE! I been GOOD!” That excuse rings true. Whether because she tries to be a good singer or because she’s Canadian, Avril’s cussing has always sounded a bit studied, like she has trouble losing control. Her producers amp up their Fun Quotient accordingly. They gleefully pound away at their chintziest organ preset and carve precisely-Autotuned melismas from Avril’s chipmunk voice, so the whole thing chugs along likably.
More problematic is “Smile” and its bold pro-roofie stance. “You know that I’m a crazy bitch,” says Avril. All fine and good, and she helpfully explicates, “I do what I want when I feel like it.” Right! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do, crazy bitch Avril! But then: “All I wanna do is lose control.” A paradox: I lose control when I feel like it. (Know who else says that? ADDICTS.)
This “Smile” paradox can mean one of several things. Maybe Avril is a control freak — “I do what I want when I feel like it” — who yearns to break free from her neuroses and lose control. That’s why she smiles when the guy puts something in her drink that makes her black out — she hates who she usually is. Or maybe it means she has no ambition to do anything other than lose control; she doesn’t want to eat or sleep or make music or go clubbing or brush her teeth with a bottle of Jack, she simply longs for the Void. Most likely, the Avril of song simply overlooks the contradiction in the “Smile” paradox and so commits to both impulses. And our job is simply to watch and marvel as these irreconcilable impulses tear Avril’s narrator apart and, if we’re lucky, spot them in ourselves before it’s too late.
Of course, real crazies tend to sound more like Liliput or Lydia Lunch, not Avril’s polite mix of thoughtful ballads and densely-produced cheerleader rock. And this is a tension that’s been in rock music since the get-go: how to sound like an unhinged lunatic, a crazy bitch, within the confines of four-minute songs that make money for corporations? In “Smile”, Avril simply plops the tension into our laps and grins her vampire grin. That’s one way to do it.
If you wanna know how NOT to do it, listen to the last five tracks on Goodbye Lullaby. Avril wrote them all herself, and let’s just say she’s an artist who benefits from collaboration. (The album’s other Avril-only tune, “Stop Standing There”, is pretty good.) Though she manages some vivid lines — “This emptiness in the bottom drawer” is a keeper — it’s a bleak and forgettable final third. In typically ornery fashion, Avril closes the album with her Alice in Wonderland offering “Alice”, a generic song about a girl who insists on doing things her own way. “Alice” is also a self-proclaimed “Hidden Track” that isn’t hidden in any way whatsoever. Crazy!