It’s the 2/27 column, on 2/27! How do you like them apples?
Computer’s back, my health is strong, and it should be smooth sailing until another unforeseen disaster derails everything. I even have a choice of topics this week. I’ve recently picked up three really cool albums (Midnight Oil’s Capricornia, Neil Finn’s live album 7 Worlds Collide and Cerberus Shoal’s Mr. Boy Dog), but I’m not going to deal with any of them this week. I also have to write a massive review of the Alarm 2000 box set, which just arrived from Wales this week, but I’m not quite done absorbing that yet, so it won’t be this week.
No, I’ve chosen to write about the most annoying and frustrating of this week’s new releases, Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept. This is simply because I relate to the second track, “Narcissus,” and enjoy causing myself great pain.
I first heard Morissette’s 15-quadrillion-googolplex-selling debut Jagged Little Pill on a bet. It wasn’t the first time I’d head the distinctive caterwaul of Ms. Morissette, though – like everyone else on the planet, I was unable to escape her trio of breakout singles in 1995. As people who knew me then can attest, her singular inability to even approximate the right notes on “All I Really Want” nearly caused me to burst both my eardrums with a sharp pointy stick. As each day wore on, I prayed that the general public would start to notice how brain-splittingly awful those singles were and come to its senses.
Because they’re the general public, however, they did the exact opposite and made Morissette a superstar and a poster child for whiny anger. “You Oughtta Know” basically boils down to, “My boyfriend left me and I’m REALLY MAD,” and apparently this sort of surface-level soul-baring struck a chord with most of America, and began the onslaught of one-hit ready-made confrontational females with not an iota of talent between them. (Remember Meredith Brooks? Didn’t think so.)
And then my old friend Jeff Maxwell, writer of e-column Twitch, bet me that I’d like the rest of the album. He in fact offered to pay for my copy of Jagged Little Pill if I didn’t dig it. As I said before, I like causing myself pain for some reason, so I bought it and prepared for 55 minutes of sheer sonic agony.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
Oh, the singles still grated, but Jeff was right. The rest of Jagged Little Pill pointed towards happiness instead of dwelling in miserable rage, and the songs were well-constructed enough that I could see the mature songwriter Morissette might one day become. Maxwell even predicted the phenomenal hit potential of “Ironic,” which incidentally contains almost no irony whatsoever. He was right. Morissette was worth my attention.
Had Pill not been a 60-times-platinum icon of suppressed fury, it might have been considered a decent start. The production is a bit too slick sometimes (except on the vocals, of course), the songs all have that “here comes the chorus” feeling that producer Glen Ballard brings to all of his work, and the lyrics occasionally slip into the silly, but it’s not bad. Regardless of the quality of her album, though, Morissette had to be dreading the eventual, inevitable backlash. Even though she had it all over people like Brooks and Tracy Bonham and Natalie Imbruglia, the originator of the trend found herself grouped in with it.
The harshest critics called her a product of her record company (Maverick Records, owned by the best manipulator of public taste around, Madonna), and postulated that without Ballard to co-write and produce her work, she’d fall on her face. She didn’t even need to ditch Ballard to prove them right with her follow-up album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. An extremely long and stream-of-consciousness effort, Junkie took several steps forward in every area but popularity. Thing is, it was considerably more sophisticated than its predecessor. It was risky and confident and occasionally mangled, but it was undoubtedly not the work of a record company product.
All of which brings us to the syntax-impaired Under Rug Swept. Morissette has finally left Ballard behind, electing to produce 11 new songs herself. And surprise, she’s actually better at capturing her own sound than Ballard was. If Pill was a mission statement to millions and Junkie was an overreaction to its popularity, then Swept is just a pop album, and that’s the way it ought to be. If you strip away the hype from her first two efforts and listen to them as pop albums, Swept is her most balanced and concise collection.
You’ll have to trust me on that and just bear with the first three songs, though, because they suck. “21 Things I Want in a Lover” is just a list put to boring and repetitive music, “Narcissus” tries to spice things up with a megaphone and fails miserably, and “Hands Clean” is just godawful. (As a quick side note, it doesn’t quite surprise me that “Hands Clean” is her most successful single in ages, because it copies almost everything I hated about her big hits. In fact, it almost seems like she got in a time machine and visited her 1995 self to ask for another chart smash.)
Ah, but starting with track four, Swept turns into the mature, almost satisfying album it thinks it is. “Flinch” is perhaps the most flat-out lovely song she’s penned, with “That Particular Time” in the running as well. Also noteworthy is “You Owe Me Nothing In Return,” a spooky number that revisits some of the lyrical themes of “Still,” which remains the best song in her catalog. For six straight tracks, Morissette stays afloat, eschewing her typical wail in favor of subtle singing and occasionally surprising songcraft. That the album crashes and burns with its last two tracks, especially the all-too-earnest “Utopia,” is a shame, but with my luck they’ll be the two next hit singles.
The only other sticking point, and it’s a big one, is Morissette’s tongue-twisting lyrics. Too often the words seem disassociated from the music, like they were two separate thoughts. It’s kind of amazing that music was written to “21 Things I Want in a Lover” at all. A sample stanza: “Do you derive joy from diving in, and seeing that loving someone can actually feel like freedom? Are you funny? A la self-deprecating? Like adventure? And have many formed opinions?” It feels like she composed a want-ad for her local newspaper, and then grabbed the wrong piece of paper on her way to the studio.
Even the best songs on Swept suffer from overlocution, which is actually a good example of a word she might try to shoehorn into a song one day. “That Particular Time” is a somber piano piece reminiscent of Counting Crows’ “Colorblind,” but when she gets to the line, “That particular month we needed to marinate in what ‘us’ meant,” it nearly sinks the mood, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t fit the melody very well. If there’s anything Morissette needs to work on, it’s sculpting the lyrics to complement the music.
The sad part is, she’s getting there. She’s starting to break her cocoon and stretch her wings, but because of the success of Pill, her fans are expecting another angry testimony that speaks to their own so-called pain. Swept speaks to no one’s pain but Morissette’s, which may be its downfall in the sales department. By the end of it, you feel more like her therapist than her comrade in arms, and though it’s obvious that Morissette considers herself a bit of a modern-day Joni Mitchell, even Mitchell gazed outward every now and then. Swept, though musically far better than its predecessors, remains self-obsessed, effectively closing Jagged Little Pill‘s audience out.
That’s too bad, because the fun of following someone like Morissette lies in watching her develop. She’s obviously taking baby steps on a long-term path, and if she can escape the blandness of half of this new album, she may get there. The question is, will our short-term-memory culture let her get there, or have they already moved on to the next singer willing to speak with their voice instead of her own?
See you in line Tuesday morning.