How, at first, disconcerting it is to hear Alanis Morissette, the queen of late ’90s, angst-ridden folk rock, sing about parties, dancing and boys. If you’re lucky enough to have heard either of her first two Canadian-only releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Back in the early ’90s, prior to meeting and working with super-producer Glen Ballard, Alanis was Canada’s answer to Debbie Gibson — a 16-year-old musical protégé writing much of her own material and singing it with a silky smooth voice perfectly suited to teenage pop. And so, it’s mind-blowing that only four years later, Alanis became the archetypal feminist rocker screaming anthems of abuse and rejection. However, the similarities between her new album, Under Rug Swept, and her self-titled first album succeed in proving she’s an artist who has developed in her work, both writing and producing, yet one who harbors many of the same thoughts and dreams she did at 16.
Much of the world came to know Alanis in 1994 through her debut international release, Jagged Little Pill. Her teenybopper past was soon unveiled, but with these first albums so hard to come by, this past became something of legend. It remains true to say that a negligible percentage of those who bought Jagged have heard any of her prior work which is rather sad considering they document her progression as an artist and a woman. While her first album remains an exquisite pop experiment, both in terms of it’s sound and lyrics, it’s only now, in her mid-20s, that Alanis is able to convey those thoughts and dreams musically in a more articulate and less in-your-face style.
The stand-out parallel between Alanis and Under Rug Swept is the songs, “Superman” and “21 Things I Want in a Lover”. As the opening track of Under, “21 Things” does in three minutes what the entire album then attempts to clarify. It details exactly what Alanis is looking for in her perfect guy. According to the song, this guy would be eloquent and intelligent, sexually experimental and politically aware, self-deprecating and adventurous, athletic and free of addictions. These qualities are very much in tune with that of a grown woman having experienced relationships with men containing these qualities, few of them or none at all. The 16-year-old Alanis was just as aware of her desire for the perfect man, and while intelligence remained high on her list of priorities, she was also looking for a guy both shy and impulsive, smart and serious, who understood her need to be treated equally and fairly, essentially making her “feel like Juliet”. Young Alanis reminds herself not to take her search for love too seriously or she may “miss the feeling” though she’s quite adamant that she can’t wait to find her “superman”. Her older self can certainly relate as each track on the new album deals with having found those guys who didn’t meet her desired profile.
Under Rug Swept is again reminiscent of Alanis in its vocal range. The style of the earlier “On My Own” mirrors that of Under‘s “So Unsexy” in that, vocally, they are explicitly different from Alanis’s usual raspy-voiced singing. The earlier song is so removed vocally from the rest of the album sounding strangely like Baby Spice, while “So Unsexy” (Under‘s stand-out track) is more melodic than much of the rest of the new album and almost entirely rasp-free.
Rocked up with a few guitars and a solid bass line, the opening tracks of Alanis “Feel Your Love” and “Too Hot” are both fabulously loud rock/pop songs each containing the aggressive singing style reminiscent of today’s Alanis. The same can be said for “Plastic” and “Jealous”, which are thematically similar to “Narcissus” and “Hands Clean” in that they discuss male weaknesses and the effects that surrounding groups such as family, friends and exes can have on a relationship.
On “Oh Yeah!” Alanis introduces herself — “My name is Alanis / I’m just 16 / So gimme I break / I’m no disco queen” — to her audience, telling us the drums are smokin’ and they’ll melt your face. While the song is a rather embarrassing few minutes, it is a pronouncement of Alanis’s unpredictability and daring, the same daring as was evident on Jagged (“Forgiven”) and her second album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (“The Couch”) and continues on Under with “A Man” in which she creates a slight anthem under the guise of someone else, presumably God.
Much of that daring comes in Alanis’s willingness to showcase her intelligence in her music, for which she has often been criticized (especially on Supposed and the new album). Under‘s “You Owe Me Nothing in Return”, for example, features the line, “I bet you’re wondering / when my conditional police / will force you to cough up”. Meanwhile on “That Particular Time”, she sings, “for four months / we sat and vacillated . . . we need time to marinate / in what us meant.” It is actually not new for Alanis to construct meaningful and thoughtful sentences to lyrically convey her views rather than resorting to the “baby, I love you, oh yeah” subservient lyrics of so much other teen pop. On “Plastic”, Alanis prefers to say to her resistant boyfriend “Will not wait forever / can’t you see I’m right? / I want you to endeavor / to tell me again and again . . . what I want to hear” and on Human Touch she sings, “human touch / I gotta know it’s real / I’m tired of people selling their sex appeal / I need human love / no imitations of.”
Much of Under Rug Swept features Alanis returning to her pop roots. Her approach to exploration of her fears and joys is a lot softer than on Jagged and a lot less stream-of-consciousness and diary-like than Supposed. She’s a lot more willing this time around, at 27, to have fun with her self-image while remaining serious about it. She is also a lot more willing to accept responsibility for how she feels regarding love and rejection rather than finding the nearest man to blame.
Alanis Morissette’s apprehension about re-releasing her first two albums to an international audience is understandable. She has, after all, spent the past seven years building up her reputation as a serious and dedicated singer-songwriter plucky enough to tell it like it is, constructing songs much of her audience can easily relate to. However, Alanis is right to leave Alanis back in 1991 (under rug swept, if you will), when it was accepted and adored for what it was, a tremendous pop album, not the gimmicky pre-“are you think of me when you fuck her”-Alanis novelty album it sadly has no choice but to become in 2002.