Monday, April 15, 2013

I Let Go And Admit The Impossible: I Might Like Avril Lavigne

The Good: Moments of voice, Musical diversity, Even *shudder* moments of lyrics
The Bad: Some of the dumbest rhymes in pop music history, Nasal vocal productions, Frontloaded
The Basics: Avril Lavigne surprisingly reveals a musical sense that presents a strong - less disaffected than on heard on the radio - young woman with just enough to recommend.

Well, let's start with the obvious: never in a thousand years did I believe I would be sitting down today to write a positive review in which I recommended Avril Lavigne's debut album Let Go. No, for the last few years, Ms. Lavigne has stood as my sterling example of how bad pop music can be. From the first time I heard her infectious pop hit "Complicated" through the wincing moments when "Sk8er Boi" rhymed "boy" with "boy," Lavigne has been my poster girl for why writing is so important to making decent pop music. Whenever I've heard an artist repeatedly rhyming the same word with itself, I call it "Avril Lavigne Syndrome." So, what changed? Well, I often listen to albums that challenge my expectations of what I will like, if for no other reason than to keep perspective and truly relish those things I actually love. Every now and then, I find myself surprised by the results.

With thirteen tracks, clocking in at forty-eight and a half minutes, Avril Lavigne's Let Go is a pop-rock album that has far more diversity to it than the radio-friendly tracks would seem to indicate. Produced by famed producer Antonio "L.A." Reid - whose last work I reviewed was the disappointing Pink album Can't Take Me Home (reviewed here!) - Let Go is a weird combination of much of what is good and much of what is abominable about pop-rock music.

Let's start with why I didn't like the works of Avril Lavigne before listening to Let Go. Lavigne burst onto the music scene in the United States in 2002 with her single "Complicated," a song that was anything but. From its infectious singsong melody to the insipid and obvious lyrics, I found "Complicated" to be anything but. I mean, how hard is it to come up with lines like "You're not fooling anyone when you become / Somebody else / Round everyone else . . ." ("Complicated")? The rhymes were so obvious and juvenile with almost every rhyme being an unsophisticated, unchallenging line ending with for/before, be/see, are/car, etc. So, I had her pegged as the next pop princess trying to make it big with a sound that was produced, unclever and plain dull.

Then came "Sk8er Boi" (that's "Skater Boy" for those needing the IM shorthand to American English translation - yes, for some reason the youth of the nation believe is somehow takes less time to spell "boi" as opposed to "boy") and Lavigne's sound was a pop-punk fusion that was just plain awful. After all, with a refrain like "I'm with the sk8er boi / I said see you later boi . . ." ("Sk8er Boi") I was terribly unimpressed. Sure, it's a reasonable song telling a story with a decent message (don't judge on looks alone), but the rhymes were terrible and the vocals illustrated no sense of talent. Anyone can shout out lyrics and at this point, I had Lavigne pegged as a female Green Day.

Lavigne's two radio singles illustrated a young woman whose music was produced, whose voice was not presented anywhere near a semblance where a listener could determine whether or not she actually had a decent set of pipes to her, and she illustrated no genuine musical ability. In this regard, some of the experience of listening to the album Let Go did not change my opinion. Most of the songs are so produced that it's hard to tell what instruments are actually being played by Lavigne's bandmates Evan Taubenfeld, Matthew Brann, and Mark Spicoluk. Songs like "Losing Grip," "Mobile," and "Unwanted" are listed in the liner notes as "All Guitars, Bass, Keyboards & Programming: Cliff Magness." Lavigne's music is largely assembled, like a factory product to yield the maximum results of a hit album.

How this album became a hit on the strength of the lyrics and vocals from the radio hits is baffling to me. After all, it took until the third single Lavigne released - the ballad "I'm With You" - before she sang anything that hinted she even had a modicum of singing ability. Her voice is so overproduced that it's impossible on the album to tell what is her natural voice and what is enhanced in some way.

Moreover, this problem has the effect of obscuring some of the lyrics. As embarrassing as it is to admit, one of the songs that was turning me around on Lavigne when listening to Let Go was her song "Mobile." I thought it was something brilliant and expressive to start with an almost folk-rock sound and sing about how she is manipulated by the world. When she repetitively degenerated into ". . .Everything's / Changing when I turn around all out of my / Control I'm a robot . . ." (not quite "Mobile"), I was so impressed. Lavigne made the track sound robotic, mechanical, and oppressed. I was actually thinking that Lavigne had something impressive to say and she was doing a good job of showing, not telling. The problem is, after ten listens to the album, I checked out the actual lyrics and was surprised to find that Lavigne is not singing about becoming a robot, but rather a "mobile." Even knowing the correct lyrics, I've gone back and listened to the song and her voice is so overproduced that it truly does sound like she is singing "robot" instead of "mobile."

But, it was enough to get me to actually listen to her. She follows "Mobile" with "Tomorrow" and "Anything But Ordinary," two tracks that sound like they could have been from Michelle Branch's debut, The Spirit Room something I was surprised to hear on Lavigne's album. Had Lavigne actually been playing her guitar on "Anything But Ordinary," I would have been both surprised and suitably impressed. As it is, she plays guitar on a lone track, near the end.

But let's finish with the last nightmare of "Let Go;" "Nobody's Fool." On "Nobody's Fool," Lavigne is a little, angry Canadian, rapper. Sigh. This is why the Canadians never conquer . . . well, anything (all due respect to famed Canadians Avril Lavigne and William Shatner). Lavigne's public image for her first album is disaffected young woman with anger, it's little surprise her music is noted for many of the rebellious traits (as well as inconsistent drumming) of the punk music movement. She appears on the cover of her album - and many of the interior pictures - with eyes rimmed with dark mascara, arms crossed. She's one of the guys, she's nobody's "chick," she's a strong, independent young woman. That's the image, but even with that inherent toughness, she can't pull off rapping and be taken seriously.

But moreover, "Nobody's Fool" illustrates the real fracture in Lavigne's music vs. musical persona. "Nobody's Fool" is an anthem all about the importance of being yourself. Lavigne sings, "I'd throw it all away before I lie so don't call me with a compromise / Hang up the phone I got a backbone stronger than yours" ("Nobody's Fool") that exhorts the listener to stand by their own creative vision. She sings defiantly about the importance of being yourself, which resonates as an anthem to young women.

This follows close on the heels of the pure pop "Things I'll Never Say," one of the few tracks that insinuate that Lavigne has a vocal talent to be exploited. "Things I'll Never Say" fits nowhere near the hardened image Lavigne presents on the front cover and most of the tracks when she sings "If I could say what I want to see / I want to see you down . . . [ellipses hers] on one knee . . . [ditto] / Marry me today." This is a track that is, well, downright girlish. And while the lyrics might be no more sophisticated than "Complicated," "Things I'll Never Say" is pure pop candy in its sound and writing.

But, it sounds good. Like "I'm With You," that track illustrates Lavigne can sing. In fact, the album opens with the last single Lavigne tried to market, "Losing Grip" and that song is easily one of the best on Let Go. She actually emotes when she plaintively wails the refrain of "Why should I care / Cause you weren't there / When I was scared / I was so alone / You need to listen / I'm starting to trip / I'm losing my grip / And I'm in this thing alone" ("Losing Grip"). Lavigne has something to say and she sings it well, even though the lyrics have unsophisticated, singsong rhymes.

Which leads us to one of the things that pushed me over the edge on this barely above average album (it's about a 6 out of 10 in my pantheon); for all its faults, Let Go appears to be heavily Lavigne's vision. All thirteen tracks are co-written by Avril Lavigne. It does appear to be her sense of poetics and coming from a young woman who was less than eighteen when most of the tracks were written, this provides a very real sense of who she was at that age. Perhaps that's why the album resonates so much with younger listeners.

Does it have enough to offer to adult audiences? Surprisingly, yes. Musically, the album is more than just the pop of "Complicated," the pop-punk of "Sk8er Boi," and the obvious ballad "I'm With You." Let Go contains pop rock that uses the heavier guitar tracks ("Losing Grip"), the rap experiment (shudder) "Nobody's Fool," and a set of lighter pop-rock songs after the known singles are out of the way that keep the listener surprisingly glued to the album. Would I love to hear an acoustic or a cappella version of "Naked?" Absolutely; Lavigne's production managers almost universally overshadow her voice with production elements (more on that when I review her latest album in a few days) and that song seems particularly misproduced.

What the album offers to all listeners is a strong, female voice who has something to say. Many of the songs have an almost folk sense of storytelling and while the rhymes might not be sophisticated, most of the songs have something to say. And musically, the album sounds good. Yes, even the hard to decipher "Mobile" has a tune that resonates with the listener.

But more than anything so far, Let Go implies that Lavigne has some talent and that this is the starting point for her. As such, it has many of the problems of a first album, but it also holds the promise that with her success, she might be able to branch out and present her own musical vision and - more importantly - voice in the future. But the truth is, it's been a while - not since I reviewed Macy Gray's On How Life Is (that’s here!) - since I've reviewed someone I was so prejudiced against and found so much merit in the actual body of the work.

I still wince hearing "Sk8er Boi;" it's a lame song, but it's overshadowed by the quality of eight of the nine non-single tracks that follow it. And if you had told me before I listened to this album that I'd ever list anything other than "Sk8er Boi" as the worst track, I would have declared you crazy. It feels crazy to acknowledge that Let Go has enough to recommend it and is a surprisingly diverse pop-rock debut.

The best track is the rocking declaration to be extraordinary called "Anything But Ordinary," the worst is the similarly-themed rap "Nobody's Fool." I'll be happy when her albums become more about her art than her executive producer's sense of artistry.

For other Avril Lavigne works, please visit my reviews of:
Live Acoustic
The Best Damn Thing
Goodbye Lullaby


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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