Counterbalance: Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Ritual de lo Habitual’

Don't save the complaints for a party conversation. The world is loaded—it's lit to pop and nobody is gonna stop talking about the 420th most acclaimed album of all time. Further dispatches from the Alternative Nation in this week’s Counterbalance.
Jane's Addiction
Ritual de lo Habitual
Warner Bros.

Mendelsohn: I’m almost done torturing you with my early 1990s nostalgia. One more and then it’s over (at least until I work up the courage to go back to Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral). This week it will be Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual. When I picked this album, both Ritual and Jane’s Addiction’s first album Nothing’s Shocking were relatively close on the Great List, hovering in the back half of the top 300. Not wanting to talk about two Jane’s Addiction albums and since they were both ranked about the same, I flipped a coin. Ritual de lo Habitual won. But since the last revision, both albums have taken a little tumble. Nothing’s Shocking currently resides at No. 391 while Ritual de lo Habitual fell to No. 420. Not a big deal, I thought. But now I’m starting to second guess myself. Would you have preferred to listen to Jane’s Addiction’s major label debut? Or the record that helped cement their status as figureheads of the Alternative Nation?

Klinger: Honest to God, I could not care any less. I decided some time ago that Perry Farrell was just about the most irritating figure in the entire alt-rock pantheon (if you assume, of course, as I do that Courtney Love was a false flag Manchurian candidate created by the Clinton administration to distract Gen-Xers from Whitewater). So yeah, whatever. We might as well listen to his ten-minute extrapolations in which he regales us with yarns about his many deeply spiritual sex and drug exploits and how much he enjoys stealing from people who own stores. If you or me or any normal person got stuck at a party with Perry Farrell, we couldn’t run far enough fast enough. But yeah, let’s listen to Ritual de lo Habitual. What the hell. Six of one.

Mendelsohn: There we go. I was starting to feel like you couldn’t work up enough Gen-X wrath to truly go after this record properly, especially after your blasé reaction to Soundgarden’s Superunknown. I was afraid I’d lost you to the miasma. I guess the real kicker is how spot-on you are in your assessment of Farrell. The man is a walking, talking rock ‘n’ roll cliché — from the giant ego (that destroyed his band), to the raging drug habit (that destroyed his band) and the constant, inane chatter (that destroyed his band), to the whole getting clean and then releasing more music that isn’t anywhere as good because the combination of frantic youth, megalomania, and drugs is gone (because it destroyed his band). We’ve seen this before. We will see it again. And you aren’t wrong about the lyrical content. Farrell writes like a 16-year-old boy, his simplistic lyrical bent makes Jim Morrison look like John Keats.

But there are still two Jane’s Addiction records on the Great List. For all of Farrell’s failings as a frontman, he was still in one of the better bands of an era, helped open the door for alternative music, and ushered in the 1990s with enough critical appeal and commercial success to leave a lasting mark. I thought maybe you’d be a little more forgiving of Ritual de lo Habitual. Yes, it’s a little long-winded in spots, but it is sharp in all the right places and rocks with an upbeat, propulsive nature that was eschewed by their contemporaries in favor of droning nihilism. Jane’s Addiction brought a sort of sunny California disposition to the proceedings that was fairly quickly drowned out by the steady drizzle of Seattle’s gloom rockers. In comparison, what’s not to like?

Klinger: Somehow I’m managing to find plenty to not like. But OK, Mendelsohn, I’ll throw in a couple things here to humor you. The band does manage to get into a good groove fairly regularly (even that damn “Three Days” has its moments, although in a ten-minute song you should be able to get it right at least a couple times — call it the Broken Clock Effect). It’s especially effective when I’m able to not picture Perry Farrell karma dancing or whatever I assume he’s doing throughout these proceedings.

But also, and no one is more surprised than I am to hear me say this, Farrell does manage to graft a pretty good melody onto those grooves on a pretty consistent basis. For every time he irritates me, like on that profoundly annoying “sex and my drugs and my rock and roll” dub parody they stick in there without crediting Ian Dury (Is it not a parody? Then God help us all.), he also exceeds expectations with something like “Been Caught Stealing” where his voice skates around the clichés and sails into melodies that most singers might not have thought of.

Even so, I am very excited to be in a situation where I don’t have to listen to this album, let alone actually think about it. Is that wrong? I know I’ve said that we should spend more time embracing the things that shake us out of our need to be cool, but in listening to Ritual de lo Habitual, I’m hearing what happens when you’re maybe a little too into saying “Yes” to stuff. Something about this record just brings out the Puritan in me.

Mendelsohn: Have you tried taking the crucifixes out of your ears? That might help. Jane’s Addiction was all about “Yes”, until bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins started saying “No”. Guitarist Dave Navarro has famously said that he doesn’t remember recording this record because of all of the heroin he was using. Both Navarro and Farrell were heavy into the hard drugs — it fueled the vibe of reckless abandon that drives this album but eventually forced the group to disband. Then, true to the rock cliché that he is, Farrell got clean, found healthy living, and tried to recapture his glory days and nostalgia dollar with little success — far less, I might add, than his contemporaries Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, who offered up a decidedly darker view of rock and its trappings of excess.

But now I’m a little curious: what is it about this record that has you itching to throw it back on the shelf (or garbage) as quickly as possible? Is it just Farrell’s frontman antics? The overly long rock-outs? “Three Days” does go on for far too long but there is that section toward the end of the song — do you know the one I’m talking about? — with the great build-up that encapsulates everything that is great about rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ll wait for that part all day long. So what is it, Klinger?

Klinger: After listening to a 10-minute rock-out that eventually makes its way to climax, you know what it’s really hard to be in the mood for? Another 10-minute rock-out that probably also makes its way to some sort of climax. Christ, even the Doors understood that. So yes, overly long. I’m a busy man, Mendelsohn, and I’ve no time for this sort of rock frippery.

And maybe I’m just over-romanticizing the promise of this so-called alternative music, but I can’t help thinking about it all in the context of the time. Once the business figures out how to monetize something, it ends up creating a schism between the people who are more than willing to swim after the dollar on the fishhook and the people who aren’t — and who then end up sounding like dogmatic churls in the process. I know which side of the fence I generally find myself on, and I don’t like my voice when it gets all churlish, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. The Alternative Nation sounded to me at the time like a synergistic merger between Viacom, AOL-Time-Warner, and Starbucks, with a crapton of musicians being used as pawns, chewed up, and spit out. Is that Jane’s Addiction’s fault? No. But maybe if they had been allowed to grow more organically they might have been able to keep their egos and excesses in check long enough to age gracefully and mature musically. That may be giving Perry Farrell too much credit, but I’m feeling a lot calmer after venting so much spleen.

Mendelsohn: Like any social uprising — be it the Spanish Inquisition, or the Temperance Movement, or the Alternative Nation — it’s all smiles and back-patting until one day it isn’t (whether that has to do with too many executions, running out of booze, or the eventual disillusion of the music consuming public the outcome is always the same). It’s a pattern we will forever be repeating. Jane’s Addiction got caught in a wave that was meant to remake the music industry — they rode the crest, made some pretty good records, started Lollapalooza, helped the record industry cash in (willingness aside), and then wiped out ten feet from the shore. When the wave did make it to the beach, it was a tepid showing that washed up the mangled remains of the band at the feet of the few bystanders who hadn’t already left. But for those couple of years in the early 1990s, Jane’s Addiction managed to make high-powered rock that should be able to stand the test of time — that is, if you have the time.