[12 June 2008]
All right, check this scenario: a Canadian-born singer goes from Debbie Gibson-like teen angst to becoming Screechy Revenge Girl, selling a ton of jagged little records in the process. She follows her success with a record that most fans and critics regard as decidedly less “angry”. Critics contend that there’s a direct correlation between the singer being “less angry” and the singer’s diminishing record sales.
Yes, I’m talking about Alanis Morissette. Ever since she dropped the teen-pop routine and went all rocker chick on us for 1995’s Jagged Little Pill, the script has been set: you either like the Alanis Morissette who showed up to “remind you of the mess you left when you went away” (“You Oughta Know”) or you don’t. A third option is claiming not to care about Alanis at all, but I’m rejecting this position outright as patently untenable.
So, the question remains: do you prefer Angry Alanis or Meditative Morissette?
Angry Alanis retorts, “But you’re still alive,” in response to the ex-boyfriend who once promised he’d hold her until he died. Meditative Morissette sings a series of “thank you"s to all sorts of life experiences: terror, consequence, disillusionment, traveling to India, and so on.
Angry Alanis doesn’t want to be your babysitter, your doctor, or the eggshells that you walk upon (“Not the Doctor”). Meditative Morissette watches relationships, or even the world, like a moviegoer with a bucket of buttered popcorn (“Front Row”).
Angry Alanis will tell you you’re uninvited (“Uninvited”). Meditative Morissette will ask you if needing a hug would be considered whining (“Can’t Not”).
Angry Alanis says she can see right through you (“Right Through You”). Meditative Morissette has identified a list of qualities for her potential mate (“21 Things I Want in a Lover”). Meditative Morissette can boil life down to “Eight Easy Steps”.
The lesson we should learn from Alanis Morissette’s latest endeavor, Flavors of Entanglement, is that there’s actually no such dichotomy. No “Angry Alanis”, no “Meditative Morissette”. It’s a figment of our collective imagination. I’m not even sure it’s accurate to categorize Jagged Little Pill as the “angry” album in the Morissette discography. Popular tracks such as “You Learn”, “Head Over Feet”, and “Ironic” didn’t really fit the “angry” paradigm. There’s an argument to be made that they were precursors to the introspective and contemplative tunes that followed Jagged.
On the flip side, it’s equally erroneous to assert that everything post-Jagged lacks the presumed Jagged Era anger and bite. Example: Under Rug Swept‘s “Narcissus” might have sounded like a laidback track on some rapper’s mixtape, but she threw a few lyrical jabs in there. And what do you make of the YouTube video of Alanis singing the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” and, to borrow a phrase from the three judges of American Idol, making it her own? Alanis Morissette’s got as much fun in her belly as fire.
I’ll take this argument a step further, to even bolder territory. I don’t think Jagged Little Pill is Alanis Morissette’s best album. Not an opinion I expect to be shared by the majority, but somebody needs to shake Jagged Little Pill‘s pedestal a bit. As a whole, the album is quite enjoyable, but its dominance goes unchallenged, which strikes me as odd since the characterization of Jagged as the epitome of “Angry Alanis” at the peak of her powers will probably always haunt Ms. Morissette’s output. Maybe that’s why, in Entanglement‘s closer, “Incomplete”, she sings that she will one day be “measured outside of my poems and lyrics and art.” Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
For my money, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) is the superior album, her best release, more detailed and broader in scope than Jagged and certainly better conceived and executed than either Under Rug Swept (2002) (although this one had some solid cuts) or So-Called Chaos (2004). I understand why some Alanis fans don’t dig it—Infatuation Junkie is like a melodically-challenged free association exercise, a collection of sonic Rorschach tests. In short, it’s a mess. But what a beautiful mess it is! Amid all of the psychobabble and Eastern philosophy and wandering verses, Infatuation Junkie is a wild, fascinating ride.
Flavors of Entanglement is fascinating as well, but for the opposite reason: Entanglement is an unsettling mess, one that makes us reevaluate what we know about Alanis Morissette (which is a good thing) but rarely adds anything new to guide us in our reassessment (which, as you might guess, is not so good).
The album showcases only a few of the traits we love about Alanis. Lyrically, she continues her journey through personal and interpersonal terrain, honing in on ways to identify her demons and straighten her entanglements (as in “Moratorium”). But the focus is much more heavy on identification than on true discovery. In the past, she’s been able to dig deeper, in a therapeutic sort of way. Here, in the very whiny “Torch”, she’s content to say things like “I miss your smell”, along with a host of other attributes and experiences she misses, and leave it at that. I keep hearing that this album is inspired by her recent breakup—something about her beau (Ryan somebody) leaving her for another high profile lady (Scarlett somebody—you’ve heard of her). However, the real life drama adds little to the listening experience.
Then there’s the Alanis Morissette voice. That big, searing voice of hers doesn’t steal the spotlight the way it used to, as her vocal instrument now competes with swirling, futuristic beats and thumping dance numbers (“Straightjacket”, for instance). By the way, what’s up with all these female singers casting aside their strengths and distinctive styles? Nelly Furtado’s Loose sounds nothing like her earlier efforts, Janet Jackson has morphed into a fembot with an array of fetishes, and Mariah Carey gave up on tight compositions and creative arrangements and started singing like she’s the long lost member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Weirdness…
In the case of Alanis, the background seems to drown her out in a deluge of technology, which I would have said was impossible. Alanis always liked to belt out her lyrics over phat “beats”, but something’s different here. I don’t even get to hear her unique enunciations and creative syllable breaks. I adore those quirks! In “Citizen of the Planet” and “Versions of Violence”, she’s in Evanescence mode. In “Giggling Again for No Reason”, the title of which might have been more fitting for the album than Flavors of Entanglement, she’s sporting a rather interesting falsetto. It’s difficult to cozy up to this version of Alanis, despite the fact that such reinvention can be quite a jewel. Problem is, it often sounds as if the music is doing one thing while Alanis is doing something else, so that the foreground and background never truly mesh.
I have no doubt that I’m complaining too much. Maybe I’m looking for another Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie the same way some folks are looking for signs of the supposed former Angry Alanis from the Jagged Little Pill days. When I put my wants aside, I’m encouraged to overlook the generic moments (like the single “Underneath”) because I’m enamored with the gorgeous balladry of “Not As We” (be sure to download this one!), the slinky rhythm of “In Praise of the Vulnerable Man”, and the fact that the tempo of “Moratorium” reminds me of my guilty pleasure song, Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield”. Ultimately, Flavors of Entanglement is better than expected, but not as strong as we hoped it would be. Fun enough for the summer but, hopefully, not forgotten by fall.