Recently, pictures of Avril Lavigne from her album-release party hit the web. She was sporting a punk-glam dress, long blonde hair with green and pink streaks in it, and black combat boots. Truth be told, this look isn't different from the Hot Topic fare she used to wear about 10 years ago. Whether her wardrobe is age-appropriate or not is debatable, but it does underscore an interesting point about Lavigne: Though she's been gone for four years—since the release of her successful third album, The Best Damn Thing (remember the single "Girlfriend"?)—she doesn't seem to have evolved.
This is not lost on critics, who've been split in reviews of her latest album, Goodbye Lullaby. Some appreciate the 26-year-old's seemingly newfound introspection—presumably over her failed marriage to Sum 41's Deryck Whibley, the expiration date on their love, the unbearable lightness of being lonely, etc.—on tracks like "Wish You Were Here" (co-written by the singer) and "Everybody Hurts." Others point to "What the Hell" (also co-written by Lavigne) and "Smile" as familiar mall-rebel anthems. While they're admittedly catchy, they could be indicators that whatever deep thoughts and feelings Lavigne's had are mere affectation. Despite the brat-pop pioneer inching closer to 30, she's still stuck in first gear.
Lavigne, for her part, marketed herself as a changed woman—more of a street-smart Alanis Morissette. "I've done the whole pop-rock, aggressive, bratty, playful, boy-bashing stuff," she told Billboard. "I definitely didn't want to keep making the same record over and over." Lavigne claims that her record company, RCA, reacted aversely to her new direction and attempted to usher her towards dance-pop. "I had to fight and say no, but... I ultimately made the record I wanted to."
Given her bold statement, Lavigne's choices are curious. Last year, she embarked on some sonic flirtation with English producer Alex Da Kid, who's predominantly known for his work on pop-tinged songs by hip-hop artists such as Eminem ("Love the Way You Lie"), T.I. ("Castle Walls"), and Dr. Dre ("I Need a Doctor"). Perhaps mercifully, the material didn't make it on to Goodbye Lullaby. Her ex, Whibley—not exactly known for bringing out depth in an artist, as he's only really produced his own band, Sum 41—helmed a handful of her album's songs. And she also collaborated with Swedish songwriter Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson). Though he has an undeniable gift for crafting narcotic melodies, Martin's strengths tend to lie in confection more than introspection.
The biggest question Goodbye Lullaby raises isn't whether or not Lavigne's having some sort of identity crisis, it's whether she's still relevant now that the charts are flooded with female pop singers. You want glossy pop? Listen to Katy Perry. You want punk-pop? Try Pink. You want avant-pop? Check out Lady Gaga. You want trash-pop? Go to Ke$ha. (Her protestations against electro-pop notwithstanding, Lavigne recently covered "Tik Tok.") As it is, Goodbye Lullaby debuted to low sales, despite the decent performance of its first single, "What the Hell." For an artist who's safer than she lets on—and has branched out into perfume and clothing lines—Lavigne has much to contemplate in the way of branding.