Nine years is a long time in the music business. When Avril Lavigne's debut disc came out in 2002, she was hailed as the younger, sassier version of Alanis Morissette. Three albums later, Lavigne's old niche as the punky pop star has been taken over by Ke$ha, who is only two years younger. The former sk8ter girl, now 26, is marketing perfumes and fashion collections, and still looking for a credible way to segue from her old musical identity to a new one.
She hasn't found it on Goodbye Lullaby. This much-delayed album has been talked up as some kind of personal reckoning after Lavigne's divorce from Sum 41 singer Deryck Whibley, and maybe it felt that way for her while she was writing the direct but mostly forgettable lyrics. But the songs contain little to catch the ear of anyone who isn't already a fan. This is disposable, industrial pop, short on invention and buffed to a high gloss.
The big question for me, listening to this disc, isn't "Is Avril growing up?" but "Why doesn't someone teach her a few new chords?" In the middle of the album, there's a seven-song sequence in which six of the tunes use the same progression, in the same key (C major). The progression's a very familiar one: it's the basis of Pachelbel's Canon and about a jillion other pop songs. To beat that old horse six times out of seven, without moving your capo even once, must stand as some kind of record for bone-idle, crank-it-out songwriting.
But wait, that's not the whole of it: The album begins with another song, same progression and same key, called Black Star, which happens to be the name of Lavigne's first perfume. Are you getting the personal side of this yet? Three songs later, Pachelbel is back in the studio again, except that this time, Swedish pop Svengali Max Martin (the Britney Spears-Ke$ha-Pink collaborator whose name is on four of these tracks) has enough professional pride to change the key to E.
Melodically, the record is mostly a desert of pseudo-tunes – you know, those ditties that hover around the tonic the way a new swimmer keeps within reach of the pool's edge. You try to find some interest in the lyrics, and you're hit with lines like "I'm for real" and "All I wanna do is lose control" – on an album in which every sound has been filleted and steam-cleaned and Auto-Tuned to death.
A couple of songs push back at Ke$ha. Smile and What the Hell, Martin's bouncy single, would both have us believe that Lavigne is still ready to be really bad and kiss the wrong guy and maybe not even wash her hair for a day. Most of the disc is about a less smash-and-grab kind of existence, in which pretty much everything you've heard in other mediocre pop love songs is rehashed. The break-up stuff is mostly confined to that run of C-major photocopy songs. A few of those were produced by Whibley, which must have been a bit weird in the studio. The back story has more spice than the results.
The only song that sounds as if some real heart went into it is Goodbye, a ballad with strings and piano that is the only thing Lavigne did all by herself, including the production. It's high in her register, and she sounds a bit like an angel with tattered wings. It's pretty slick, but it's just genuine-sounding enough to hint at what Lavigne might be able to do if she scraped off the production makeup and got some partners who aren't just trying to wedge her into a viable slot among the competition.
- Avril Lavigne