“The angriest people I know are people whose presentational selves connote an ongoing and unrealistic joy.”
Such comes as an aside in Alanis Morissette’s essay that can be found in the recent collector’s edition re-release of her impressively omnipresent 1995 set, Jagged Little Pill. It comes as she explains the reactions she received after releasing these 12 songs into the universe. “Apparently, there were a lot of things people didn’t know about me,” she reflects. “That I could write. That I was angry. That I had multiple feelings. That I was complex.”
Complex is a good word for Alanis Morissette, but it’s a better one for Jagged Little Pill. It was, after all, the very thing that somehow managed to get a boatload of 11-year-old boys and girls all around the world to introduce weirdly intelligent sentences like “I’m consumed by the chill of solitary” and “I’m frustrated by your apathy” into their vernacular. And that’s all within the first minute, forty-five of the record.
Twenty years later, and those passages – as well as the unapologetically expert pop songwriting that Morissette and producer Glen Ballard perfected during this time – hold up surprisingly well, if not better than they did when this stuff first hit your Discman. It’s not overwrought, like you might think it would be, all these years later. Instead, it’s impressive. It’s more than just a snapshot of early-to-mid-90s rock-pop that needn’t be discussed or reflected upon as timeless, or, for that matter, good.
No, in fact, everything, from “All I Really Want” down to “Wake Up” (we’ll ignore the alternate take on “You Oughtta Know” for now), somehow still sounds fresh. It still sounds hungry. It still sounds exciting. It still sounds authentic. Not even hindsight, which tends to distort these types of things, can get in the way of the that blistering electric guitar in the chorus of “You Oughtta Know” or the unexpected tenderness of “Head Over Feet”. These songs were built to last, and they do.
If anything, some of these tracks even cut deeper than they did initially. “Not The Doctor”, which was always the unsung hero of Pill, paints the singer as someone wise beyond her years, but now that it actually is beyond those years, there’s a more substantial appreciation for her cynicism. And “You Learn”, perhaps one of the more vanilla hits to come from this album, still offers sage advice like “I recommend putting your foot in your mouth to anyone.” Yet now, instead of mindlessly singing along, it’s much easier, with the help of time, to appreciate precisely how aware such a simple line can be. It all amounts to proof that when Ballard calls his songwriting partner someone “wrapped in an old soul” throughout his accompanying essay, he’s not wrong.
Even the requisite collector’s edition bells and whistles, for the most part, are worth your attention, save for the acoustic version of the album which adds little or nothing to the proceedings. The outtakes, however, are an interesting set. “The Bottom Line”, which was the first song Morissette and Ballard wrote together, appears good enough to have been on the initial release, even if its aesthetic differs slightly from what the world received instead. “If somebody asked you to surrender and that was the only way to win,” the track starts, and for a 19-year-old, that’s a hell of a way to break through the gates. Teenage observations rarely sound so insightful.
Sure, the B-sides begin to tail off — “Comfort” comes by way of traditional piano balladry, which is just a smudge too ordinary for an artist of this caliber while “Gorgeous” is essentially “Perfect” part two — but the spots that do work are somewhat confounding in that even not-good-enough Alanis is still better than whatever it is that most pop artists produce today. “Closer Than you Might Believe” is notably bright in a way that you might not expect from such a famously bitter singer. “Superstar Wonderful Weirdos” then features a harmonica part almost identical to “Hand In My Pocket”, but the spotlight on Morissette’s storytelling abilities shines brighter here than it does anywhere else. Just ask the football star who only “really really wants to be a ballerina.”
And then there’s the live disc, which is especially valuable for those of us who don’t know Taylor Hawkins as the drummer for Foo Fighters, and rather as the dude who played on Alanis’s first tour. The performance comes from a September date in London all the way back in 1995. The mix isn’t great — a bootleg on steroids is the first description that comes to mind — but it certainly captures the energy of that moment in time, and that’s an energy essential to understand the state of popular music back in the mid-90s.
It was rock music. Pure, unadulterated rock music. Think about it: would the stars of today’s contemporary radio even consider taking out a four-piece rock band to back them as they set out to perform their hit pop record for the masses? Probably not. That’s why the live set here is so valuable — it might be one of the last times in popular music that someone as Top 40 friendly as Morissette, with an album as high-selling as Jagged Little Pill, decides to approach the live performance aspect of the equation with a gang of simple, straight-forward rock players.
For evidence, check the outrageously amped up take on “You Learn”, which busts through the door with a pounding woodblock, a faster tempo, and an electric guitar that kind of feels like it would also work in Velvet Revolver. “Wake Up” is funkier than the record without losing its mystique while even “Ironic” kicks the shit out of its passive original incarnation whenever the hook takes off. Plus, I mean, hell: when all is lost, just remember that this thing gives the world that seven-minute version of “Not The Doctor” it never even knew it wanted.
Actually, Alanis Morissette is the artist and Jagged Little Pill is the album that the world never even knew it needed. Read through the essays that accompany this collector’s edition and understand just how dismissed those two things once were. There wasn’t a record label that wanted to touch it. In fact, as the singer points out, after her first attempt at pop stardom failed, and she wanted to explore a more honest approach to songwriting, she was told simply, “no one wants to hear this from you.”
But she pushed forward. Thankfully. Because of all the oversized plaid shirts and ripped, stonewashed blue jeans that the 1990s brought us, Jagged Little Pill is one of the rare time capsules that continues to hold up to this day. The music, still infectious. The lyrics, still smart. The production, still glossy. The attitude, still singular. There’s a reason this thing grabbed the balls of the world for as long as it did and refused to let go. It was just better than its peers. It had more substance. It had more depth.
It made you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines, and when you think you’re going to die. Twenty years later, and those thoughts still aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon.