Your Best Defense, My Conditional Police
372 · 14 March 02
Alanis Morissette: Under Rug Swept
I am fairly sure that Alanis Morissette is currently the most popular artist I wholeheartedly support, and I wouldn't be surprised if I reach the end of my existence as a list-making creature without ever choosing a favorite album of a year that sells more copies than Jagged Little Pill. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie made #3 on my 1998 list, and Jagged Little Pill made #2 on my list for the entire Nineties. I believe in Alanis. I think she's an important musician, and an intriguing person, and not only do I expect to like a new album by her, I expect it to be a significant event in my life. Arguably I half expect this and half will it. I'm capable of disliking individual albums by musicians I believe in, but not without trying really hard to make a peace with them first. Or more often, as in this case, I adore the first song I hear, and am plagued by no further doubts.
But because this may be the one time all year that I discuss someone about whom I can assume the majority of you already have opinions, I feel obliged to begin with two essential disclaimers. The first one is that Alanis is a poor lyricist. Much of the negative criticism of her songs revolves around her lyrics, of course, but it almost always either snipes at her for perceived errors (i.e. the nuances of "ironic") or just complains that the locutions she uses are too complicated, and in fact I think these are the least of her lyric-writing problems. The worst of her lyric-writing problems is that she has absolutely no idea how to construct a song's worth of language that amounts to anything more than a list of its lines. I assume she is aware of this, because once again over half of the songs on this album follow strict line-patterns, starting straight from the title of the opening track, "21 Things I Want in a Lover". We could transpose the lyric booklet to an entirely invented character set, and you would still be able to recognize the repetitive nature of nine of these eleven songs just by looking at the patterns of letters and spaces. Alanis is an aphorist, not a storyteller. And she's not even especially good at that; many individual lines read inelegantly, as if they were written in haste and then, by policy, never edited, an effect sometimes painfully exacerbated by glaringly poor sync between words and music, including two examples as inept as anything I can readily bring to mind (the Shakespeare-as-cretin stress on the second syllable of "formed", in "and have many formed opinions"; and the swallowing of the first syllable of "affect", in "you affect me like you are my twin", so that it comes out sounding like the horrible "you feck me like you are my twin"). She writes like she wants to be smart, but she reads like she grew up on television and learned most of her big ideas later in therapy.
The second essential disclaimer is that musically speaking, Under Rug Swept is a deliberately, systematically and perhaps plaintively conservative record. After two albums that might have been credited to Morissette/Ballard in another era, Under Rug Swept is written and produced by Alanis herself, and she has gone about it precisely the same way we would, in software development, go about replacing a major system component: you take it out, you put the new one in, and then you just try to get all the things the system used to do working again, exactly how they did before the change. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was courageous and risky and in many respects ill-advised; Under Rug Swept is as safe as making records could ever be, as faithful a reprise of Jagged Little Pill as anybody could hope to execute without amnesia drugs and a time machine. Only a few drum loops betray the passage of seven years, and a few of those have already aged poorly during the time it took to shrink wrap these things and ship them to stores.
But those were more or less the same flaws that Jagged Little Pill had, which I'm claiming was the second best album made by humans in a whole decade, so they don't for a second stand in the way of my enjoying Under Rug Swept, either. I'm guessing that this won't end up being my favorite record of this year, but I might be wrong. If it shares Jagged Little Pill's flaws, it also shares several of its cardinal virtues. Most obviously, however subjectively, I believe this album has three show-stopping, musical-history-grade, magnificent, era-illustrative rock anthems. "Hands Clean", the lead single, sounded like one to me by itself, and on the album the placement and the brilliant slam-halt non-segue from "Narcissus" elevate it even further. A diffident acoustic guitar figure is joined by a switch-flick-abrupt drum-loop entrance, and by the chorus there are charging electric guitars and bounding bass. "We'll fast forward to a few years later", Alanis sighs ("sigh" might be the wrong word, in absolute terms, but she's in her mellow "Hand in My Pocket" mood, not the "You Oughta Know" fury), and I picture a dozen movie images of romances sustained over years. Listen closer, though, and you'll find a relationship dynamic far more insidious and sinister than the one in "You Oughta Know". Lies and broken promises are debilitating, but they have a way of turning themselves into truths that are only transiently painful. The relationship in "Hands Clean" is riddled with promises you shouldn't want kept, cowardly silence and sickening superficiality. "What part of our history's reinvented and under rug swept?", she asks, but where "You Oughta Know" allows its narrator to be victimized, "Hands Clean" obscures the relationship's balance of power (I think she's switching between the two characters in the verses, but if she isn't, the situation is even more ambiguous), leaving its central questions unanswered, and thus potentially answerable. When Alanis picks the wrong word, it can be breathtaking (I do not recommend drinking anything carbonated while listening to the second half of this song for the first time; white people should be more judicious about using the word "posse"), but glaring missteps are a hundred times easier than incisive subtlety, such as the deadpan irony (lest you still think she doesn't know what it means) of "I have honored your request for silence" when the request is so baldly dishonorable, or the perceptive choice of words in "I might want to marry you one day / If you'd watch that weight and keep your firm body", especially "firm" where pop history suggests so many more-rhapsodic and less-accurate sentiments.
The spacing is faultless: "Hands Clean" is track three, and the second triumph, in my estimation, is track six, "Precious Illusions". It's a Tori-ish title, but an unmistakably Alanis song. Say what you will about drum loops, this one can flick and crash forever as far as I'm concerned. One hi-hat stutter-step, a cracking snare that switches timbres when it needs emphasis, kick drums fluttering like they've been used to trap mutant butterflies. Flea and Me'Shell NdegéOcello both make celebrity bass cameos elsewhere on the album, and I hope, when they hear Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery's springy groove here, they feel disgusted with themselves for squandering opportunities. Guitars swirl and chime (courtesy of Dean Deleo of Stone Temple Pilots, doing a starkly against-type The Edge impersonation). People determined to hate Alanis in all guises will probably recycle stock complaints about "You Oughta Know"'s stentorian demeanor, but the one-voice verse parts here are meticulously gentle, and I'm convinced critics would be lining up to praise the acrobatic multi-tracked chorus harmonies if they thought it was Sinéad O'Connor or PJ Harvey generating them. And although Tori would have done something grander with the title concept, for Alanis I think "These precious illusions in my head / Did not let me down when I was a kid" is actually preferable. As tempting as it is to compare Alanis to Tori and Ani DiFranco and Suzanne Vega, it's worth remembering that her media childhood was basically the same as Christina Aguilera's and Britney Spears', and if either Christina or Britney turn into adults a twentieth as wise and curious as Alanis, I will be equal parts surprised and humbled. (Hell, if by 2008, when Christina and Britney are both as old as Alanis is now, either one of them has successfully written, produced and released a single remotely thoughtful song under their own power, I will publicly apologize for every cynically dismissive thing I will by then have said about them.) And write off Alanis' "production" skills as the products of secreted Glen Ballard cheat-sheets if you want to, but 2:45 to 3:05 of this song belongs in a rock textbook, especially the little humming sound that leads toward the cathartic return.
The third song for the vaults, if they are mine to stock, is "Surrendering", the second to last. The clomping drum loop has been used so many times before that if we hadn't invented digital there'd long ago have been nothing left of it; the bloopy synth cascades were probably swiped from Madonna, maybe without realizing how many generations old they already were by Ray of Light; both the vocal melodies and guitar hooks swoop up and down scales as if gravity itself militates against any progress but one step at a time; the little Eastern touches in the background are about as culturally appropriate as a BK Lamb Kurry. And put together, they make a song I would happily listen to on repeat for twenty-four hours straight if I thought doing so would fix the smallest broken piece of the world. Alanis may not know how to combine lines into real poems, but she can make epic rock-anthem choruses that nobody else would ever hope to survive. "And I salute you for your courage, / And I applaud your perseverance, / And I embrace you for your faith / In the face of adversarial forces / That I represent." That should never work. Lyrically it's surprising and conflicted at precisely the moment it should be the most affirmative and uncomplicated. Musically the payoff line falls out the back end of the chorus and has pretty much nowhere to go. And god, it's electrifying. What a thing to celebrate. I think I'm in the process of involuntarily rewriting my list of the great love songs, and this one might supplant "I Melt With You". Promises are cheap and easy; stopping the world is an offer you could make to a magazine cover, so how could making it to a person ever be anything but insulting? But congratulating them for not letting you drive them off, that is heroic.
I was sure, after listening to Under Rug Swept only once, that it had three timeless songs. The others came into focus more gradually, but I now feel like I empathize with all but one of them. "Narcissus", the one with Flea, is the most effusive and gimmicky, with probably the worst teenage-poetry-notebook lyrics, and if I'd been in the room while they were engineering the guitar part's gratingly relentless volume-pulse I would have been strongly tempted to stomp on somebody's mixing hand, but the sheer goopiness of the phone-compressed "Why why do I try to love you" bits after the choruses wears down my resistance, and I've finally realized that the farther I throw myself into the silliest moments (especially the use of "lick" in an idiom that calls for "kiss"), the faster I'm yanked back when the end arrives with less than a second of warning. "Flinch" is airy and becalmed, and doesn't do much for me in isolation, but it's an indispensable part of the album's structure, a meditative intermission after "Hands Clean". "So Unsexy", with one of Me'Shell's two star-turns (consisting largely, and oddly, of inventive articulations of a single bass note), will probably be the first target of critics who wrote the mean intros to their articles about Alanis' precious lyrics a year and a half in advance, but in this case I think the premises of therapy are actually integral, and the first-person in the song's shimmery confessions ("I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful") is a proxy for everyone's self-doubts. "That Particular Time" is a quiet piano ballad worthy of Sarah McLachlan, and even inching towards Kate Bush's "Moments of Pleasure". "A Man" has some more truly awful lyrics (including an attempt to rewrite "bring home the bacon" in mock-biblical cant, which any self-respecting writing teacher would have failed, and at least three lines that should have been rearranged so the accents don't fall on unstressed syllables), but musically it's an heir to the grinding menace of "Baba", and thus a link between Under Rug Swept and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. "You Owe Me Nothing In Return" (Me'Shell's other song; and again she's stuck with a simplistic line that I could probably play) is another intermission, slow and spectral to set the stage for "Surrendering". And "Utopia", the atmospheric finale, sparkles with glassy strings, trebly (and faintly Celtic) folk-guitar and eerie falsetto backing vocals, and spirals off into a gorgeous fadeout chorale.
The song I'm left with, the one I think is actually wrong in a vital way, is the opening track, and the one I can imagine Maverick, and maybe also Alanis, hoping to eventually position as the record's signature. The most overtly list-built of these songs, it's the obvious successor to "Hand in My Pocket" and "Ironic", from Jagged Little Pill, and "Thank U" and "Unsent" on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, and as an anticipatory relationship litany it's also a reversal of the post mortems in "Unsent". It is the song here that most reads like rapidly jotted notes never revised, but that was kind of the style of "Unsent", too. My objection is none of that, it's that the premise is deeply and dangerously flawed. "Not necessarily needs but qualities that I prefer", she is careful to clarify, but yet, there she is, killing time between relationships by devising abstract criteria with which to rule people out. But interpersonal chemistry is not a matter of checklists. Alanis is probably famous enough that she could actually line men up and cull them according to these rules, but doing so would be just as stupid as for most people it would be impractical. Make up twenty-one rules, and at least half of them will be wrong. This is the intrinsic fallacy of dating services: you are not describing your soulmate, you are describing your comfort zone and your fears, and what could the "soul" in "soulmate" possibly imply if not a willingness, a drive, to pull you out of your complacencies and confront you with your unexamined aversions. "You've never been with anyone who doesn't take your shit", Alanis tells the boy in "Narcissus", but she's in danger of missing her own point. "Your shit" includes everything, especially the things that seem the most reasonable and/or inextricable. Beliefs need to be exercised, values challenged and refined. We look for matches when along many axes we should probably be seeking complements. "Do you see everything as an illusion / But enjoy it even though you are not of it?", Alanis inquires, pen poised above checkbox. What kind of question is that? "Don't believe in capital punishment?", she snaps. "Don't understand how a thinking person could support capital punishment?", I might as well reply. "Do you derive joy from diving in / And seeing that loving someone can actually feel like freedom?", she demands. What's wrong with her selection patterns that she feels like she has to ask this? "I figure I can describe it, since I have a choice in the matter", she insists. But this is so wrong. In a very real sense, we don't have a choice in the matter. Magic is not deterministic. You don't get twenty-one rules, you get more like two, maybe three. I'd throw out the first nineteen of these, and keep only "Are you not addicted?" and "Are you curious and communicative?" "Communicative" is probably expendable too, come to think of it. Curious and clean, that's a realistic filter. Between them those two things probably imply some of the others, but maybe, in an individual person, not the ones we'd think. Questionnaires are a profoundly wrong affordance. We should be trying to reset assumptions, not itemize them.
And there is why I think Alanis is gifted, and important. It isn't that she's wiser, or cleverer, or sees farther, or has suffered more-revealing pain. It's that her problems are so obdurately normal, and her ideas about solutions to them are flawed and inspired in such quintessential proportions. Her songs are talismans of believing that your decisions and philosophies matter. She is a radical anti-nihilist in a culture that constantly decays towards moral entropy. She sings not to be followed, but to be imitated and improved upon. At the end of this album I may not feel like I face different challenges, but I feel like the challenges are better organized, and I have some ideas about new mistakes I should try making in order to learn from. And every time I hear one of these songs in a store, or on a radio, or coming out of somebody's car, it will help me believe that we have a shared understanding of what we have to confront in order to not waste these lives. I am a terrible elitist making an open-hearted concession to populism: I spend most of my life in a musical universe that doesn't intersect the charts at all, but I want this album to be massive and infamous. I so desperately want nobody to give up on Alanis, in either direction. If you can't adore her, I hope you'll take the time to despise her. Complain, rant, despair. At least, in doing so, you brush up against dialogues. Hate her on her own terms, and you've begun to take those terms seriously. Dismiss her points, and you've begun to grant that there could be points. Alanis Morissette may be the most foolish wise person on the planet. Don't expect to find your answers in these songs. Expect, at most, just the kind of truth we should demand from everything into which we expend breath. Expect doubt. Expect error. Expect the tantalizing and infinitely elusive possibility of reducing an intractable universe to an endless list of paradoxes so trivial that we will be allowed, occasionally, for an hour at a time, to pick out a couple and imagine them solved.