"who's the one that's stuck?"

May 23, 2004 (Updated May 23, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Catchy pop/rock production, solid melodic structure, expressive singing.

Cons:For years I've defended Alanis's songwriting from misguided attacks, all now suddenly true.

The Bottom Line: Alanis always in her hands like silly putty the English language treats, and she always rocks out with musical depth. When she had things to say, I liked that trade.

Before we delve into my review of Alanis Morissette’s 4th album So-Called Chaos, here’s a quick quiz. Pick, for each pair, the better lyric:

(A) “Would she go down on you in a theater?”
(B) “Is she lascivious and subservient?”

(A) “Do I stress you out? My sweater is on backwards and inside out, and you say ‘How appropriate’”.
(B) “I’m the most muddled-up woman you’ve ever known, and my imperfections make you impatient although affectionate”.

I know, quizzes about English are scary. We’re taught to fear that the secrets of great writing are beyond us, passed along in secret ceremonies involving patterns of symbolic paper-cuts and ink made from owl blood, held in the dark of night in the subbasements of elite universities. But go with your gut: pick an answer.

The correct answer to both pairs: A is better. If you picked that, smile. If you’re holding out for B, you should leave after the second row of asterisks, cuz nothing I say beyond will make a lick of sense to you.

But So-Called Chaos is an album of music, so first I'll tell you what it sounds like. It sounds like an Alanis Morissette album. “Eight Easy Steps” is fast, even rushed, but it’s a midtempo album. Every song has verses that are quiet, choruses that are loud, and a bridge that usually has the most interesting and slantwise vocal melody. There’s big distorted guitar-rock in some choruses, but it glistens; and there’s songs with strummed acoustic guitar, but the synthesizers and sequenced rhythms are still the musical center.

The synthesizers lines are, for the third straight album, much more creative than you’d guess from her Jagged Little hit singles, but it’s never a scary kind of “interesting”. “Knees of My Bees” has gentle sitar, “So-Called Chaos” has tablas and drones, and “Spineless” uses some scales and string melodies straight from her India sojourn, but there’s nothing as harsh as “Baba”. “Everything” really is a pretty single, and “Excuses” is even more so. And while I'm sad that her singing lacks much of its usual power here, other good people will read that as “Thank God she’s stopped caterwauling already!”.

If you’re new to Alanis, and you’re buying for sound alone, So-Called Chaos is a solid starting point. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie gives you more variety, more adventure, and 75% more running time; but Chaos sounds essentially like Under Rug Swept, and is better-produced (which is high praise).

I don’t want to not-like an Alanis album, and in two weeks I’ll look back on this review and think “What was I being so harsh about?”. She’s written better hooks than these, true. Still, she knows enough about song structure and melody and glossy (but layered) production to guarantee her records will sound good. This is high-class radio pop-rock, and I already own it, so why make myself uncomfortable by wishing she hadn’t released it? After tonight, I'll stop wishing.

I discovered Alanis the way everyone born before 1980 did, approximately: I caught the last two minutes of “You Oughtta Know” on MTV, and wrote her name down. Her voice was amazingly powerful and supple, sounding haunted on the verses, fierce on the howls, and agile enough to turn the funky chorus melody of “Stayin’ Alive” into “But Kinda Wishing You Weren’t”. On the grainy video she looked black to me, which meant she wouldn’t be here to remind _me_ anytime soon (I wasn’t watching the shows that had Janet Jackson and R. Kelly), so I went out and bought the album at once. The store clerk said something like “Hmm, that’s a weird name”, but a month later I’m sure he was used to it.

Jagged Little Pill was an amazing record for a 20-year-old to make. All the passion of adolescence ran through it, fury and the rush of love at full force, and her voice was a perfect tool for their expression; but they were tempered and molded, too. There was a sense of her own ridiculousness: “All I really want is deliverance”, indeed. There was sympathy for others: “Mary Jane” isn’t a subtle or inspired piece of writing, but it’s brave and well-meant, and I don’t think she’s purely sarcastic in saying, of her “You Oughtta Know” replacement, “I bet she’ll make a really excellent mother”. She’d paid attention in school: according to the Houghton-Mifflin textbooks I endured for years, there are three kinds of literary irony, and “Ironic” is in fact about one of them.

She was curious and idealistic, and willing to sound silly in her efforts to express it. The songs were catchy, both mainstream and unique: no one had ever used rock guitars and drum-loops together in quite that way before, though many people would shortly afterward.

That said, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was an amazing record for any age, one of my handful of all-time favorites (I do have large hands, but I’m not using that as a cheat). I was ready to love it from the start: she’d taken three-and-a-half years to make it, much of that time spent arguing with the record executives over creative control, and between the 72-minute length and a title guaranteed to make her fans squirm, it was obvious who’d won. So I wasn’t quite shocked that “Sympathetic Character” is almost industrial music, “Would Not Come” almost Indian heavy metal, and “Baba” built on sculpted feedback shrapnel – even as “Unsent” is a completely soft and unguarded acoustic song with no chorus, and “the Couch” a six-minute story, a synth-backed folk song.

It’s still a pop/rock album, mind, but I love those. I wasn’t surprised at how perfect the sonic details were in song after song, glimmers and flares around the edges where there could have been blur or nothing: 41 months can accomplish a lot. What I didn’t expect, at all, was how astonished I’d be by her writing.

You couldn’t not notice Alanis’s writing on Junkie. Her non-rhyming, convoluted overflows of words would bunch tightly for one 4-beat measure, then stretched two syllables over the next 4 beats. Or they’d pile up for verses on end, and still she’d need to keep singing where the melody and instrumentation had run out, just to squeeze in an "and supportive" or an "unfortunately you needed a health scare to reprioritize". I laughed out loud at those bits, sure, go ahead, and I still can’t believe a hit song asked “How bout them transparent dangling carrots?” ... but it made very clear how much her words meant to her. And once I paid attention, well!

What Alanis had mastered, along with complete un-self-consciousness, was the setting of scenes, the choice of detail. Even in simple message songs like the post-breakup “Are You Still Mad?”, details like “are you still mad that I compared you to all my 40-year-old male friends?” certainly tell us what her sins were. “That I Would Be Good” is a secular prayer, and its purpose alone would win my heart in a world where so many prayers are for success or narrow escape, but there’s a real person’s paranoia behind “that I would be good even if I gained ten pounds”.

A love song to her Mom asks "Do you see yourself in my gypsy garage sale ways, in my fits of laughter, in my Tinkerbell tendencies, in my lack of color coordination?" – no Hallmark card could ever fit a real person like that. And if Alanis was prone to heavy-handed errors like (on “Baba”) “I've watched this experience raise them to pseudo higher levels”, she could also continue the song with “I've seen their upward glances in hopes of instant salvation” and “I've watched you smile as the students bow to kiss your feet”. She _had_ seen them: she’d cared enough to be there, cared enough to notice, and was half-tempted, however briefly, to let us draw our own conclusions.

My favorite songs (“Front Row”, “I was Hoping”) were almost all dialogue, flitting between trivia and big airy opinions the way real conversations do, and ending in revelations the way most conversations don’t. Both musically and lyrically, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was the sound of a woman maturing right before our ears, and not like bonds or law students mature (into big piles of money) but into a thinking, caring, and still-strange person ready to meet new challenges, headfirst, in wild flurries of action and note-taking.

Which, I guess, she didn’t.

Under Rug Swept was Alanis’s third album, taking another 3.5 years. She ditched Glenn Ballard and produced the album herself, and while none of the music was as daring, she proved that she’d learned what he had to teach. A few of the actual songs were disappointing: “Narcissus” was pointlessly mean and had none of the precise aim her attacks in “You Oughtta Know”, “Right Through You”, or “I was Hoping” had. “Utopia” was 50% psychobabble and 50% commune babble, ending the album with a lot of big dreams that lacked character and characters.

But “Hands Clean” was detailed, “Surrendering” was funny and charming, “ 21 Things I Want in a Lover” was a loopy misguided personal ad of adorable naivete, and anyway she’d had other stuff to do besides editing her lyrics. I don’t understand a lot of what Tori Amos sings on Boys for Pele, either, but it and Swept were declarations of independence, and we don’t dis Thomas Jefferson because he said stupid things about King George in his, right?

So-Called Chaos, though, hires a new co-producer, John Shanks, who’s also produced Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow, and Hilary Duff. I’ve already implied that Chaos is more musically interesting than those artist’s records (Alanis’s own influence, I assume), so I hardly mind – but that should mean her songwriting’s back on track, yes? No.

For a small complaint, the quirks she’s always been mocked for – putting insistently words in orders unusual, never settling for one cliche when two in the bush flocking together would be lost if they hesitated – are out of control here. “You are the bee’s knees” is already a dumb praise phrase: why their knees, in particular? Is it meant to praise you as being tiny, aerodynamic, almost invisible? “You make the knees of my bees weak”, however, is far siller. If Alanis is in fact thanking her boyfriend for being a mild insecticide, I’m sorry to have mocked her, but otherwise we need to face that “You make the knees of my bees weak” is the _chorus_ of a song here.

It’s not the worst line, mind you. At the moment I’d vote for “You are a sliver of God on a platter who walks what he talks”, because eating God when he’s just a wafer is creepy enough, even without him scrambling across a plate, inadequately cooked.

But I would happily forgive this all, along with her uses of “doth” and “oft” and her belief that “assuaged” and “enraged” are three-syllable words. I would forgive this, if she still remembered any of the things she knew in 1998 about how to show instead of tell. She praises her boyfriend for his “love of physical humor” and “penchant for spontaneous advents”, instead of for how (say) he rides his unicycle up the handicapped ramps into important meetings. She promises to show us “How to hate women when you’re supposed to be a feminist” and “How to play all pious when you’re really just a hypocrite”, but then she doesn’t show us, and I wonder what those pious feminists would have to say about her?

All she can reject 9-to-5 work life with is “I want to be naked running through the streets”, which (A) she’s already done for that one video, and (B) leaves me thinking that fat people should probably still be slaves to their jobs. “I want to drop all these limitations and return to what I was born to be”: fine, I was born to scream, bite everything that came into view, and squirm when Mom tried to change my diaper. Not inspired yet.

Her ego grates on me more than it used to. “UR” was one song on Junkie I had qualms about: it was tres pretty, so I do like it, but it took some nerve for her to put words of praise-for-Alanis into the mouths of record executives. Still, she’d just sold 16 million records for them, she was under lots of pressure from men whose right to advise her was dubious, and “do you guys realize I was born in 1974?” was a very fair defense at the time. Now that she’s thirty, she really shouldn’t be saying “I’m the funniest woman that you’ve ever known/ I’m the dullest woman that you’ve ever known” as if it made her complicated, rather than delusional. Also, while it’s fine for her lead single to be a love song, shouldn’t it give her lover at least one good deed besides worshipping her?

But finally, it’s my two favorite songs here that point to the real problem. “Excuses”, attaching Jagged Little choruses to shimmering and expansive Joshua Tree verses, lists all the alibis she’d once used for old failures to try, and declares herself ready to move beyond. “This Grudge”, slow and almost country (in the same computer-softened way that Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball was almost country), counts the costs of the relationship we first heard about it “You Oughtta Know”: “ 14 years, 30 minutes, 15 seconds I’ve held this grudge/ 11 songs, 4 full journals, thoughts of punishment I’ve expanded”. “Whose the one that’s stuck?”, she asks, “who’s tired of the sound of her own voice?”. At least she could have put those two songs last: maybe, maybe, I would believe her vow to move on.

Instead, “This Grudge” is track 8, and track 9, choppy and aggressive, is a lamely sarcastic song about how willing she is to undergo victim roles. Track 10 thanks a male worshipper, and she’s gone for the night. That is so inexcusably hollow.

So-Called Chaos didn’t need to come out. She took two years, not three-plus: this wasn’t due til fall 2005. She had time to write six or seven more songs, and rewrite or drop a couple of these. What she could have done with those extra songs is, yes, to _move on_. She could’ve written a novelty song, a quasi-informed protest song, and an imitation of Bjork. She could’ve written a song about her cat, a song about her friends, a song about spending a week in Argentina, and a song in which she tries to pinpoint what exactly is so annoying about those Old Navy commercials. She could’ve had reveries inspired by the stars, by power lines, by birds, by wrecking cranes.

Alanis Morissette made, in 1998, one of the most astonishing, fascinating, and (yes) catchy albums I've ever heard. I’d follow her almost anywhere, at a discreet un-stalkerlike distance. So why has she been standing still for five straight years?

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