200 · 26 November 98
Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
Depending on which constituency you choose to be concerned with, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie could either practically write itself, or be almost inherently doomed. The simplest thing, surely, would have been to make Jagged Little Pill 2, twelve more songs, and about forty-five more minutes, of the same ambient resolve that permeated the first one. I never got the impression that Jagged Little Pill was particularly labored, for an album that sold countless millions of copies and produced six singles, so while there was no guarantee that Alanis and Glen Ballard could come up with more songs in its vein (and in eighteen b-sides from those six singles, they didn't even try once), I figured they could. Their most powerful advantage, frankly, was the simplicity of their formula: Alanis' songs live or die with her presence, so Glen's arrangements need only to be functional, agreeable and contemporary, and mostly stay out of her way. He's a professional, and she has a gift, and the combination ought to have been good for several more albums, yet, before anybody had to start thinking about evolution. And on the critical front, it didn't make much difference what Alanis did. If she didn't recreate Jagged Little Pill both note for note and purchase for purchase, it would prove that its success was a fluke, and if she did, it would also prove that its success was a fluke. The bulk of the attacks on Jagged Little Pill were baldly malicious (you could tell the people who made snap judgments based solely on "You Oughta Know", because they complained about how angry the album was, oblivious to the fact that "Right Through You" was the only other angry song on it; and a year later, when "Ironic" got its turn as a single, and people only then started ridiculing Alanis' somewhat holistic conception of irony, it was painfully obvious that they still hadn't bothered to listen to the album itself), so there was no reason to expect the follow-up to meet with any more empathy or diligence. And if Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold as well as Jagged Little Pill, despite it all, that would only be proof that popular music has once again stagnated.
The most startling thing about Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, then, and the thing that made my heart leap halfway out of my body with pride for Alanis, and by extension for us all, the first time I listened to it, is that it caters to absolutely nothing. I don't sense anything calculatedly perverse, exactly, but Alanis, even at twenty-four, must know exactly what an album like this sets her up for. After all the lazy, uninformed dismissals of Jagged Little Pill as immature vitriol, she must realize that introducing the new record with the reverent, fond, therapeutic "Thank U", with its marquee nod to her well-publicized consciousness-raising trip to India, means that people will write about how she has set aside her angst, despite the fact that the overall levels of vindictive fury on the two albums are virtually identical. After how gleefully people sniped at the lyrics of "Ironic", she must know that using deliberately repetitive lyrical structures on five of the album's first six songs is an invitation to smug censure. And most of all, after three years of unmistakable evidence that virtually nobody felt obliged to listen to Jagged Little Pill before deriding it, she must realize that handing them this sprawling, exhausting, seventeen-song, seventy-two minute album, which I'm only just feeling, after three weeks of listening to it once or twice a day, able to absorb in its entirety, can only produce reactions that are more poorly considered, still.
And even if we ignore, for a moment, what critics are bound, as if by physical law, to say about Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, since millions of people ignored them last time, the album takes real popular risks, too. The sheer scale of the record may be the most dangerous thing about it. Alanis is hardly the first artist to release an album whose length appears to have been largely determined by the capacity of CDs, but the apparent flow of time while we listen to records has as much to do with the number of songs, with the biorhythm of built and released tensions, as with the number of elapsed minutes, which makes Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie feel a lot longer, I think, than an album like Meat Loaf's eleven-song, seventy-five minute Bat Out of Hell II. Add to this the facts that Alanis' voice, even if you love it as much as I do, has several modes that are not at all relaxing, and that one of the legacies of her trip to India is a new fondness for droning, para-Eastern flourishes, which Western audiences tend to find abrasive, and I'm left suspecting that many listeners' first experiences of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie will be like mine: the first two or three times, everything after "Thank U" (which is track three) was a blur, and it wasn't until the tenth or eleventh repetition that I was sure I wasn't going to have to break the album in two in order to fit either half within my comprehension. Will listeners persevere?
The lyrics, too, are a terrifying leap of faith. More than half of the songs rely heavily on repetition, six of them using exactly one line structure per section. "Thank U", for example, uses the form "How 'bout [taking some positive step]" for every verse line, the form "Thank you [source of instructive pain]" for every chorus line, and the form "The moment I [released something] / Was the moment I [discovered something]" for the bridge lines. In "That I Would Be Good", which doesn't have sections to speak of, every line is of the form "That I would be good even [if/when] I [suffered something]", the "I must believe:" to which these are responses only implicit. On Jagged Little Pill, by contrast, only "Hand in My Pocket", "You Learn" and "Not the Doctor" had lyrics based on repetition, and of those only "Hand in My Pocket" adhered to the format rigorously. You will have to decide for yourself what you make of this tactic, but if you decide you don't like it, it could easily ruin the album for you. To me, though, it seems like Alanis has actually mastered an arcane and rather unfashionable art: she has learned how to write prayers. There is, the line about India in "Thank U" notwithstanding, almost no explicit discussion of spirituality anywhere else on the album ("Baba" is an attack on religion, and "Unsent" thanks one of its addressees for getting Alanis "seriously thinking about spirituality", but doesn't explain what the thoughts were), but the repetitions are like mantras, and imbue the whole work, for me, with a stubborn and at least half-secular faith, as if these are prayers you say to yourself, reminding yourself of your own powers, rather than prayers you howl at the sky, hoping some alien force will deliver you from your own predicaments.
At the other end of the formal continuum, several of these songs feature lyrics with no structure at all. The first time through, I actually laughed aloud at three or four points, as Alanis struggled to cram what appeared to be stream-of-consciousness confessions into some kind of arbitrary musical meter. Sort of the underlying premise of poetry, as communication, is that the force and profundity of an idea are enhanced by expressing it with linguistic elegance. Some of these songs are not poetry, at all, they're merely sentences, draped over unrelated musical patterns. This, too, will find its enemies, but for me those songs have become games, or maybe magic tricks, or unexpectedly awe-inspiring, the second time, in the same way that it changes your understanding of a ballet when you watch it again and see the dancer repeat, with unmistakable precision, a move you thought was artless and improvised when you saw it first. Poetry, particularly in pop lyrics, can be an evasion, a way of avoiding saying what you really mean by saying something different but prettier, so this stark frankness feels to me like courage.
The long journey through Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (even the title is a trial) begins, tellingly, with the observer/participant ambivalence of the resonant "Front Row". Of course it's never safe to assume that an artist is writing about their own personal experiences, but in Alanis' case I'm inclined to forget about artistic indirection, because it seems like she has, too. One of the most inspiring things about her songs, for me, and why Jagged Little Pill, despite its obvious naïveté, seemed so filled with wisdom, is that she struggles, constantly, with the tension between the impulses to dive into her life in order to be immersed in her experiences, and to climb out of it in search of a better vantage point from which to understand them. This was a subtext running through "All I Really Want", "Hand in My Pocket", "Forgiven", "You Learn", "Head Over Feet", "Not the Doctor" and her City of Angels soundtrack contribution "Uninvited" (which is not on this album, and after three years of Jagged Little Pill's thirteen-song closed universe, its omission speaks volumes about Alanis' confidence), I thought, but "Front Row" confronts it squarely, for the first time, as the narrator bounces between arguing with her lover and just sitting back and watching him like a movie. This is the most egregious of the prose-contorted-into-lyrics songs, by far, with almost a third of the printed lyrics sung under the choruses by the thickly processed background voice, and thus entirely unintelligible unless you have the booklet in front of you while you listen, and the volume way up. Putting the volume up is a good idea for the music, too, as the bass that grounds the song operates at extremely low frequencies, and I discovered, when I played the album at work, with the volume down at an overcrowded-office level, that the explosiveness of the song's opening, where the a cappella intro line gives way to the instruments, is completely lost if you can't feel any vibrations. Otherwise, the song is musically familiar, a busy, mid-tempo drum loop supplying propulsion, and slashing guitar circling in the distance like air cover, Alanis in her self-contained, "Hand in My Pocket", vocal mode. The people who griped about "Ironic" will be thrilled to note that in a line towards the end she says "rile against" when she should have said "rail against".
The album's angriest song, by a wide margin, "Baba", arrives second. Not only is this a bracing rant against the hypocritical futility of personality-cult pseudo-spiritualism, and arguably the only song in Alanis' whole repertoire in which her personal involvement isn't central, but the music is also an order of magnitude heavier than anything before it, "You Oughta Know" sugary by comparison. Grim, slab-like guitar and bass churn over a gloomy drum stomp, punctuated by metallic groans and curt, keening, sitar-ish lead hooks. Speed it up a little and it might suit Rage Against the Machine. The shrill, haunted "Ave Maria" choir in the coda does nothing to brighten the mood. There isn't a song on this album I can't imagine as a single, but this would be a confrontational choice, and a bid for an audience that the rest of the record probably isn't going to satisfy.
"Thank U", which is the lead single, is track three, which puts it, proportionally, about where "You Oughta Know" fell on Jagged Little Pill. For people who come to this album later, after there have been other singles, "Thank U" won't be the only familiar signpost on the trip, but if "Front Row" and "Baba" aren't used as singles, it will still be the first, and the elliptical arrival at comforting familiarity, through the measured opening and the scary and unexpected strain of "Baba", seems adroitly orchestrated. "Thank U" starts slowly, with glassy, ricocheting keyboards, Alanis' voice echoing out into unseen caverns, before the crackly drum loop, swelling synth fills and restrained guitar-spirals join in. By the chorus, though, where Alanis soars into her upper register to thank disillusionment and silence, the song has built into an emotional inverse of "You Oughta Know", its catharsis derived from lasting self-awareness, instead of from the cheap, visceral satisfaction of lashing out. "How 'bout how good it feels to finally forgive you", she asks; often the victories don't come until long after you thought the battle was over. The theme, learning from your experiences, is the same one that "You Learn" explored, but where "You Learn" seemed mostly hopeful, to me, like she half knew, and half just needed to believe, that facing these tests would improve her, "Thank U" is a few steps further along, and now she can see that some of the tests are behind her, and did teach her things, which lets her turn to face the next set with more serenity. It isn't peace, exactly, that flows through the wordless wails that see the song out, but it's something related, an understanding, perhaps, that once you reach a certain station, you stop worrying about how the journey is going to end.
The absence of "Uninvited" is rendered slightly deceiving by the presence here of "Are You Still Mad", which bears it a striking resemblance. A stark, four-note piano line, like a music box on impulse power, rings it in, and is joined eventually by surging strings and slow, nuance-less drums. As on "Uninvited", the accompaniment seems a bit forced, to me, like it's trying a little too hard to cover up the fact that the song's "music" is essentially the same unvarying four-note pattern throughout, like a Close-Encounters greeting melody for the aliens' slower younger brother. But also as on "Uninvited", it's Alanis' voice that animates the song, blaring and nasal through the verses, refusing to let them become a lullaby, and entwining in a double-tracked tantric flutter in the choruses. Although phrased as a question, the song is actually an apology, and while some of the offenses are mundane ("kicked you out of bed", "had an emotional affair", "had a tendency to mother you"), the apology for "seemed to focus only on your potential" sticks with me. The aspirations we develop for the people we love, and the stronger the love, the wilder the aspirations, are much more hazardous than any of the flaws that were there all along.
Alanis gets sole writing credit for four of these songs. "Are You Still Mad" was the first, and the hesitant, garish "Sympathetic Character" is the second. This time there's little in the way of melody to relieve the caterwauling singing and the lurching, mangled accompaniment. The guitars sound like iron girders being stressed, the drum loops hiss with static, Alanis glides down the verses in a barely-controlled tumble, and the chorus harmonies are wavering and dissonant. As if conscious of this, Alanis follows this anxious interlude with the album's prettiest moment, the hushed, string-buoyed "That I Would Be Good", whose Sarah McLachlan aspirations are checked only by a persistent sixty-cycle hum Pierre Marchand would never have left in, and a few soprano flights in which Sarah would have sounded less nervous. Alanis herself actually plays a quite plausible flute part on the song, although this too is undermined by the production decision to mic the flute directly in line with Alanis' breathing. And "The Couch" is in a way the most Lilith-Fair-ish of all these songs, with rattling pan-ethnic percussion, atmospheric keyboards and a vocal style somewhere in between Paula Cole and Dar Williams. The flow of the narrative is intriguingly oblique, and I change theories several times, over the course of the song, about who is speaking, but if I could work out the attributions, I'm pretty sure this would turn out to be a conversation between a daughter and her father, and when it ends with "and I love you more now than I ever have in my whole life", it seems proper that I'm not sure which one of them is talking.
"Can't Not" flips back, for most of its length, to the harsh insistence of "Sympathetic Character", but the circling music sounds a little like the Cardigans, in one of their dark moods, and right in the middle of the song is one breathtakingly fragile verse that could have been lifted straight out of a Lisa Germano song. "Can't Not" mostly gets lost for me, though, because it leads into the delicate, mesmerizing "UR". If "Thank U" redirects the bitterness of "You Oughta Know" into forgiveness, then "UR" is the music-industry sequel to "Right Through You", gentle, jazzy, with Boo Hewerdine-esque finger-picked acoustic guitar and a steady drum loop that gets modulated with roll-off filters instead of changing patterns. "Do you realize guys I was born in 1974", Alanis points out; somewhere along the way, some of her defiance has been converted to amusement. Tens of millions of dollars will encourage that process, of course, but much of it is mental. "We're surprised you didn't crack up, / Lord knows we would've", she sings, and although the compliment sounds odd coming out of her mouth, as she plays our role for us, her composure is remarkable.
The middle-of-the-album roll continues, for me, with the pounding "I Was Hoping", which alternates verses that sound like a lumbering dance remix of Dar Williams' "The Mortal City" with a charging, guitar-driven chorus. Tendrils of the older-lover perils from "You Oughta Know" wind their way into the song in places, but this time the narrator doesn't believe in revenge, and when she admits "I had to watch my tone for fear of having you feel judged", I hear both that this relationship is over, on her terms, and that she's found some much more sophisticated criteria with which to judge relationships, in general, than what promises or fidelities were broken. Put together, the "I was hoping" lines make up a concise guide to the compatibilities required for a relationship to function: "heal each other", "be raw together", "challenge each other", "crack each other up", "dance together". By the time she sighs "I was hoping we could be creamy together", in parting, I think she's realized that he doesn't even understand what she means.
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie has two songs that appear, to me, to have wandered in from somebody else's album. "One", next, is the first of these, a sultry, showy, mechanized ballad that I think would be much better suited to Madonna. Alanis fidgets uncomfortably in the polished, MOR accompaniment's restraints, and although she almost breaks free as she sings "Did you just call her amazing? / Surely we both can't be amazing!", the maudlin drumbeat is too methodical, the minor-key synthesizer washes too silky. This song needs a smoother, more cooperative voice; I don't think Alanis is quite ready for songs that ask her singing to play a supporting role. She wakes up with a wicked cackle, though, for the seething, cacophonous, "Would Not Come", rumbling bass, a booming drum-machine pattern and waves of clattering percussion bracing strangled guitar howls and a muttered litany of unsatisfying misapprehensions. The dizzy, squalling snake-charmer choruses rise out of the room-shaking pulse of the verses like a kaleidoscope momentarily turning inside out in order to lacerate your hands, as if the narrator's frustration is your fault. Whether a generation raised on techno bpm rates would be willing to dance to a song this slow, I'm not sure, but the beat is inexorable, and I bet Massive Attack could find a way to make it work.
My favorite song on the album, at the moment, "Unsent", a collection of short letters to former and potential lovers whose title is rendered obsolete by the appearance of the song in public, is the one that people afraid of telling each other the unsolicited truth will flinch at most violently. There is no lyrical subtlety to these messages at all; the first one reads, in its entirety, "Dear Matthew, I like you a lot. I realize you're in a relationship with someone right now, and I respect that. I would like you to know that if you're ever single in the future, and you want to come visit me in California, I would be open to spending time with you, and finding out how old you were when you wrote your first song." I know, from having sent some letters like this, and like the others in the song, that not everybody thinks they are a good idea. Does your best friend really want or need to know that you're in love with them? Possibly they don't even want to know that they're your best friend. I understand the objection, but I guess I feel, in the end, that we are, most of us, the objects of few enough helpless desires in our lives that letting one go by without being aware of it is unacceptably tragic. When I write mine, I do try to make them sound a little less like exercises in a twelve-step recovery program, but you use whatever idiom you're most comfortable with. The most amazing thing, to me, is that Alanis manages to make a coherent folk/pop song out of her confessions. Sparkling acoustic guitar, sawing synthesizers, percolating drums and springy bass could have just been disguises, but she finds ways to make the words and the music connect, letting a line skitter off, syncopatedly, across the floor at the end of one musical phrase, and then catching it up again in the next one. There is, as in "That I Would Be Good", no real verse/chorus structure, but the "Dear x" entrances both mark the song's divisions and tie the sections together, and I don't miss the choruses.
The other fundamentally incongruous song, and the one that has most often threatened to supplant "Unsent" in my affections, so far, is "So Pure", the album's one track shorter than three minutes, and surely the raw material for at least half a dozen dance remixes before this era is over. The credits seem quite certain that Jesus Jones weren't involved, but the song is a perfect image of what I thought, when I read that Traci Lords was making a dance album and Mike Edwards was producing and co-writing parts of it, that their collaboration would sound like. Traci opted, for some reason, not to sing on 1000 Fires, which ruined the record for me, but Alanis doesn't make that mistake, twirling into delirious, multi-track, disco-rapture spins that ABBA would envy, happy noises splashing off her in every direction. The lyrics make little sense (and the phrase "supposed former infatuation junkie", which comes from this song, would have found more appropriate context in almost any other one), but the state the song both portrays and engenders is one that transcends sense. If you're able to follow along with the lyrics, you aren't dancing hard enough.
Left to its own processes, my equilibrium would only slowly recover after "So Pure", which makes me think the raw guitar blasts that open "Joining You" were put there intentionally, like a shower loaded with black, scalding coffee. Alanis sings over just the guitar for a verse, giving us a few moments to adjust, and then charges into perhaps, with "Baba", only the album's second unapologetic rock song, this one trilling and thrashing like something from Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet. The narrative won't make sense until you go back and pay attention to the premise-establishing first verse, where you discover that the whole song is an address to a friend who is contemplating suicide, after which the "If we were our [components] / I'd be joining you" choruses (and this is another situation for which prayer is quite apt) seem heroic and profound to me, talking someone back from the brink by pointing out all the spots where we routinely veer close to it without falling. And the abrupt exit line, "Feel free to call me a little more often", ends in a fittingly unresolved suspension.
And then, after a draining hour or so, some of the players finally begin packing up, and the album glides to a stop with two quiet songs, the other pair Alanis wrote by herself. "Heart of the House" is a breathy, loving tribute to the narrator's mother, sharing more than just part of the title with the Story's "The Angel in the House". "Your Congratulations", with another of the one-finger piano parts that I'm beginning to think are what it means when they say Alanis wrote a song by herself, adds a diffident string quartet, but retains most of the character of "Your House", the a cappella finale to Jagged Little Pill.
And this time, when the album ends, it's really over, no silence, no bonus track, no mood-destroying radio edit of "You Oughta Know" to dispel the stillness. There's nothing else in my changer. There never is, when I'm playing this; until it's over, contemplating other music hurts too much. The platter genuflects past the empty apertures, allaying its own superstitious fear of harboring unplayed discs. I stop, and turn around, using most of the energy I have left, and try to see how far I've come. Seventeen songs, today. Two hundred issues of this column, starting about when Alanis walked into a studio to make Jagged Little Pill. Alanis is only twenty-four, and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is hardly Pale Fire, but I'm more in awe of it than anything I did when I was twenty-four. I'm seven years older than Alanis is, but I don't plan to die any time soon, so there's plenty of time. Maybe we'll look back, from eight albums and eight hundred issues, and know that for the first two or two hundred (or four or four hundred) we barely had any idea what we were doing. If so, fine. But lest we miss one of the lessons we just learned, we must not focus only on our potential. We must, and now I'm starting to write like I've been in therapy, too, learn to love our present. And it's true, I love Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, like I loved Jagged Little Pill, despite every obvious shortcoming, not because I hear, in my head, some other music these songs imply Alanis will one day make, but because these songs, the ones she's actually singing, are so vivid, and so irremediably themselves. There are better singers, better writers, better musicians than Alanis Morissette. You can hate her, or feel total indifference, and I won't think you're crazy. But I will be sad for you, and sad too for the rest of us. The world would be a better place if we could pick just a few things, and all love them, the elitists and the oblivious alike. The planet flies apart, and we desperately need anything that could tie us to each other. For a moment, it seems like Alanis Morissette and Pepsi are our two most viable options. And I hate Pepsi. So for Thanksgiving, 1998, I'm thankful for one, maybe the only, precious illusion that we're all embarked on the same journey, lined up in one enormous formation, and this record can change every course at once.