I’m a strong believer in the idea that you can’t sell out if you were a poser to begin with. I don’t know if that fact helps or hurts Avril Lavigne’s new image, which takes the sk8er mall-punk she started out as and morphs it into some of kind of grotesque, 42nd Street caricature. Maybe Canadians aren’t capable of understanding irony (at least not until their 30s), but The Best Damn Thing is simply in bad damn taste. It’s an unexpected move for Avril, what with the album being preceded by the sullen Eragon soundtrack song “Keep Holding On,” also included here. I’ll admit that 2004’s similarly humorless Under My Skin grew on me—not enough to fully endorse, but there’s no denying the power-pop appeal of songs like “My Happy Ending.”
There are few such songs here. When she finally gets serious, as she does on “When You’re Gone,” it simply falls limp. Penning lyrics have always been Avril’s kryptonite and ballads only highlight that weakness: “This is the best feeling,” she says repeatedly on “Innocence,” but she doesn’t even attempt to describe those feelings (unless “You make me so hot/You make me wanna drop,” from the track “Hot,” counts). Though the material on The Best Damn Thing doesn’t allow for the same vocal versatility as its predecessor, the essence of “Innocence” is distilled not in Avril’s words but in her delivery: “It’s so beautiful it makes you want to cry,” she sings at one point, her vocals sweetened with multiple overdubs. Maybe she’s figured out what writers have been struggling with for centuries! Yeah, I doubt it.
At least when Avril’s being bratty it’s minimally entertaining. Both the album’s title track and its lead single, “Girlfriend,” employ a catchy, cheerleader stomp a la Tony Basil’s “Mickey,” effectively appropriating the song back from Gwen and Pharrell. But whether it’s the video, in which she plays dress-up and tries her damnedest to follow the choreography, or performing her new material live, Avril can’t pull off the pink pumps or punky pout with any kind of believability. Her attempts at sounding irreverent (“She’s, like, so whatever/You could do so much better”) and bad-ass (“I will drink as much Limoncello as I can/And I’ll do it again and again,” she declares on “I Can Do Better”) just wind up sounding juvenile. The Best Damn Thing is a big step back for an artist who was just starting to grow up.