I had just turned 21 when Alanis Morissette’s immortal Jagged Little Pill was released.
I wasn’t quite the target demographic – I wasn’t an angry young woman, but I was young and angry. But once I got over my initial reaction to the ubiquity of the singles, I fell in love with the record. I’ve probably told this story here, but I was resistant until my friend Jeff Maxwell offered to pay me for the album if I didn’t like it. I couldn’t tell a lie. The album was – and is – wonderful.
I think some expected that Jagged Little Pill would be just the first in a long line of tear-it-up-and-burn-it-down albums from Morissette, and her subsequent career must seem like a disappointment in that light. She’s never recaptured the fire that she bottled with that first big swing. Her music since then has been about healing, about finding yourself and being as happy as one can be in this world.
It’s all been pretty good, but none of it has stuck in my memory quite like her earlier material. I have to confess that, while I heard them a number of times, I don’t recall much about 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement or 2012’s Havoc and Bright Lights. I’ve checked my notes, and I liked both records, but I couldn’t hum a single song from them. And I’m not sure why. It’s possible that Jagged Little Pill hit me at the right time, and struck a chord with me. Songs like “Perfect” and “Forgiven” spoke to younger me, and older me still listens.
If that’s the case, then I must be at the perfect age and time of my life to hear Such Pretty Forks in the Road, Morissette’s seventh major release. We’re the same age – she was born four days before me – and in the same way Pill was an album about being 21, Forks is a record about being 46. It’s her first album in eight years, but it’s her best in far longer than that. Stylistically, it couldn’t be farther away from the music for which she is best known. It’s a brooding, moody piece of work, mostly quiet and organic. But in its own way, it’s just as raw and honest and compelling as she’s ever been.
This is, in the main, an album about perseverance. Its first three tracks are my favorites, and together they are Morissette’s mission statement. “Smiling,” a song she wrote for the Jagged Little Pill musical, gets things started on a minor key note, Morissette singing about hitting bottom, waving a white flag, and yet continuing on. First single “Reasons I Drink” is a nimble piano number about… well, it’s in the title, isn’t it. And between them, “Ablaze” is a song about what she fights for. An ode to her three young children, it’s a sweet reminder of what matters: “This nest is never going away, my job is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze…”
From there, I think people will be surprised how piano-driven and atmospheric this record is. Morissette is still cramming as many syllables into each line as she can, but on a dark and deep song like “Losing the Plot,” it works beautifully. Her voice is as strong and idiosyncratic as ever, and these songs are remarkably confident. I’m not sure this will please anyone looking for the musician she used to be, but I’m very much satisfied with the musician she has become. These songs resonate with 46-year-old me in ways I can’t explain, but then, Morissette’s best work has always done that. And this is definitely among her best work.
Morissette isn’t the only Canadian songwriter returning after a long absence. Kathleen Edwards is not nearly as well-known, but she should be. Between 2003 and 2012 she made four terrific albums of down-to-earth folk-pop, and with each one her reputation grew. 2012’s swell Voyageur found her working with then-beau Justin Vernon and co-writing with John Roderick, and it was her most successful. She was, I thought, on her way to becoming a household name.
And then it all became too much for her, and she set it aside. She opened a small coffee shop (cheekily named Quitters) in Ontario, took care of her own mental health and built an entirely new life. And though I knew I would miss her songs, I could only wish her well. It takes great courage to step back, re-evaluate and change everything. Throughout she insisted that she was only taking a break, and would be back to writing and recording songs at some point.
Eight years later, here Edwards is with her fifth album, tellingly titled Total Freedom, and man, I missed her. This record is just wonderful. Its ten songs are strummy, melodic, powerful, memorable, sometimes pointed but just as often beautifully at peace. Edwards’ voice is as strong as ever, and as a songwriter she’s as consistent as I have ever heard her. The weakest link here is a song about her dead dog (“Who Rescued Who”), but she even makes that work somehow.
When she’s at the top of her game here, she’s untouchable. “Birds on a Feeder” is a warm finger-picked delight, Edwards singing the lines that lend the album its title: “I’ve got total freedom, no one to need…” “Simple Math” is one of the best love songs I have heard this year (or last year): “Love is simple math, I don’t care how old we get, I’m just one and you’re one and we’re two together…” “Glenfern” is a sweet song of gratitude for the good parts of her former life, and it sets a gentle tone.
There’s a bitterness to some of this, Edwards lamenting failed relationships in “Feelings Fade” and “Fools Ride.” My favorite of these is “Options Open,” a wickedly good country-pop tune about two people missing each other. “For 39 years I’ve been keeping my options open,” she sings, taking her share of the blame. She saves her best heartbreak song for the end: “Take It With You When You Go” is an exorcism, Edwards begging her lost love to take all the hurt with him, and in the end realizing he is “just a picture in my wallet I can’t tear up.”
This is such a compelling record, such a strong set of songs. Whatever it was that brought Edwards out of her quiet life and back into a studio, I’m grateful for it. And if this is the last we hear from her as a songwriter and performer, well, I’ll still be grateful. This album is a gift, one I did not expect, but one I am so happy to receive. Welcome back, Kathleeen, for as long as you want to stay.
I’m still pinching myself at the news that we can expect two new Midnight Oil albums this year.
The first of them, The Makarrata Project, is due out soon, and is reportedly a set of songs about the native Australian people and their fight for equal treatment. Amazingly, there’s a single, released last week – it’s Midnight Oil’s first new song in 18 years, and you can hear it right now. It’s called “Gadigal Land,” in honor of the Gadigal people whose traditional lands are now called Sydney. It gallops along on a guitar-and-horns pulse, and Peter Garrett sounds tremendous, full of that old fire. It’s a new Midnight Oil song! Exciting times.
We still have to wait a bit to hear the Oils’ new records, but there is one Australian band whose new work we can talk about right now. That band is Husky, and I owe Rob Hale for the fact that I even know they exist. When I say I owe him, I mean it – Husky is one of the most consistently great new bands I have encountered in years. Their sound is easygoing, led by the soft voice of Husky Gawenda, but their songs are superbly crafted. The band has moved from the acoustic folk of their first two records towards a more vibey electric feel, but that songcraft remains.
Their fourth album, Stardust Blues, continues that transformation, and the results are sublime. First single and leadoff track “Cut Myself Loose” starts as the band means to go on – its head-nodding beat supports an ocean of ringing guitars and pianos, all there to set a gorgeous mood. “Light a Cigarette” threatens to quicken the pace, but its light melody vibes along, its twists and turns marking it as a classic Husky tune. “SYWD” (short for “Something You Wouldn’t Do”) feels like a breezy piece until you try to count it out – the verses slip from 7/4 to 4/4 to 6/4 effortlessly. It’s a perfect example of Husky’s trademark: catchy songs that are deceptively complicated.
There aren’t any dead spots on Stardust Blues, which means it continues the streak set by the previous three Husky albums. The sound is new – much of this album was recorded in a 1920s mansion and artistic commune, and you can hear that relaxed feel throughout – but the songs are just as wonderful as they’ve always been. Husky remains a band to watch, even now that their records only come out in Australia. I bought the download of this album, since I didn’t have much of a choice, and there aren’t a lot of bands I would do that for. Husky continues to earn my love.
And that’ll do it. Next week, if all goes well, I start an extended project I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. If all does not go well, I’ll be back with more music reviews. Come on back in seven days to see how things went.
See you in line Tuesday morning.