The Sun Came Tumbling Down Into Our Arms
492 · 1 July 04
Alanis Morissette: So-Called Chaos
Cynics will say that Alanis Morissette is now every bit as much of a franchise as Britney Spears or Sarah McLachlan or Enya. There is a market for these songs and this image, and Alanis has a brand advantage over everybody else serving it. There will thus be no appreciable deviations from previous formula. Alanis's fourth album will sound as much as possible like a composite of the first three minorly adjusted for prevailing style-drift.
Cynics will, in this as in most things, hear their cynicism confirmed. That is the cynic's curse, but So-Called Chaos cooperates well enough. It settles gently into the catalog. The four album titles all kind of run together, as do the covers. Alanis could have pushed herself in any of a thousand directions and done something startling, whether good or bad, and she didn't. Not only does this album take no audible risks, it hardly even bothers with problems it could have corrected safely. Alanis still doesn't know any writing mode other than list-making, still would rather mis-accent words than rewrite a line to fit a cadence, still basically has no mode of expression other than diarist self-study. She continues to refine her mastery of carefully modulated production. She may never again write a song as unbalanced as "You Oughta Know".
But I knew all that. Alanis knows all that. Whatever other patterns of motives you feel like attaching to her records, you'll have a hard time arguing that she isn't also doing exactly what she has always said she is doing. She makes songs out of moments of her life, and shows them to us in case they are also moments of ours. They're often fairly ordinary moments. She's often a fairly ordinary person. Smarter than many, a little more aware than most, a little more determined to make sense of herself. She turned thirty a couple weeks after this record came out. She's grown a little, probably no more than you'd expect for two years, but maybe she's now been basically happy for long enough that she can afford to be playful with her remaining issues. She still pretends to no authorial distance, affects no characters. This is hardly art's only fundamental mode, but it's one of the most honest and least presumptuous, and a mode in which she can be both unremarkable and important, in which her music can be completely predictable and yet wholly enchanting. John Shanks and Tim Thorney might not be better co-producers than Glen Ballard, but they have an easier task and far less to invent. The band is mostly changed, but the longer Alanis does this, the better she gets at making her own sound out of the personnel available.
So yes, there's nothing new here. Anything that already bugged you about Alanis probably still will. If this record changes your mind about her, it is because something changed in you. Many, many things have changed in me since Under Rug Swept, but apparently none of them bear much on my Alanis synapses. I find myself listening with effortlessly renewed empathy and a seemingly involuntary smile. Her struggles and epiphanies often feel familiar to me, and seem genuine even when they don't. I'm OK with list-making, I'm OK with stressing the final syllable of past-tense verbs, I'm OK with her calmly busy production aesthetic. I believe that sometimes you have to make huge changes in your rules and environment in order to progress, but I also believe that huge changes for their own sake are as much an evasion as complacency, and in a way the real soul of progress is how you spend the days in which you're just trying to be an infinitesimally better version of the same person you were the day before.
And where Under Rug Swept eventually crumbled into individual songs, for me, leaving me with three I loved and eight that made me impatient, I don't hit a button from the beginning of So-Called Chaos to the end. Of these ten songs, nine of them seem like perfect singles to me, and the tenth might have the most interesting noises and be the most essential for the coherency of the set. I feel myself helplessly memorizing this record the same way I absorbed Boston and Rush albums in my teens, and am ecstatic that I can still care this much without entirely knowing why. Alanis sounds happier, and I feel happier, and my teens were good and thirty was good and thirty-seven is excellent. There are records that make me stop and reevaluate something I thought I knew about the world, and this isn't one of those. This is one of those records that I put on when I want to feel like myself.
"Eight Easy Steps" leaps from simmering to seething, fondly itemizing the mistakes Alanis now understands how to make, and so maybe how not to. It takes some courage to sing a vocally earnest "I'll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best!" to an audience that couldn't parse the back-references in "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)", but this isn't the only song here where Alanis gets the last laugh on anybody who thought she actually didn't understand irony. Her penchant for forcing written lines into musical structure even if a few words get mangled in the process rises to the level of high stunt here, and unlike in Letters to Cleo's "Here and Now", most of these tangles are more interesting once you unwind them. I could hug her for nothing more than having the gall to put the claim "I've been doing research for years" in a song that millions of impressionable kids who think "research" means "homework" will probably hear.
"Out Is Through" is quieter, or at least more self-contained, musically a kind of "Solsbury Hill"-ish jangle and whir. The somewhat platitudinal chorus evokes all sorts of recovery-program agendae, but this is an inversion song, not generalizing from a relationship to an emotional rule but specifying from mantra back to its particular relationship implications. In this one the chorus corrects the verses, balancing a redemptive hymn to interpersonal realism, or to understanding that difficulties arise from having relationships at all, not from having bad ones, and the most you can achieve through avoidance is loneliness. And if couching this courage in twelve-step language implicitly validates the idea of programmatic self-improvement, then that's another hope.
"Excuses" is little more than a synthesized recapitulation of "Eight Easy Steps" and "Out Is Through", in both lyric structure and energy, but this is a credit to Alanis' sequencing as much as a criticism, and sets up an elegant transition to the measured "Doth I Protest Too Much", where yet another denial litany finally collapses into the title's admission. If you want to pick on Alanis for writing poetry like a precocious high-schooler, this is probably a good song to start on, with the haplessly precious "Doth" and yet another last-syllable stress on "enraged", but the chorus seems to me like a good example of how her writing is often better than its form. The shape is "I'm not a, / I don't get b much, / I'm not c, / I'm not d as such, / I'm not e, / f stays in touch, / Doth I protest too much." This is pretty simplistic for a mad lib, let alone a song chorus, never mind that it provides all four rhymes in the frame wording, including using "much" twice. And yet, I think the "much" and "as such" are emotionally critical caveats, and turn the list from simple negation to incipient confession.
You'd be unlikely to guess that the album has any meta-structure just from listening to the way the songs sound, but it does when you pay attention to the words. After the four-song opening suite of calling yourself into account, the second section starts with "Knees of My Bees", easily Alanis's most unguardedly sentimental love song, and one of the few really wholehearted examples you'll find anywhere in pop music of anybody attempting to detail another person's specific spiritual qualities (as opposed to how they make you feel or how they look in wet clothes). The chorus is grandly inane, as are some of the verses, but love in its private grammar will rarely sound rational to an outsider, and needn't want to.
"So-Called Chaos" itself is the album's midpoint. It's the album's most musically anomalous song, spooky and gnashing, but it's also probably its most thematically appropriate title track, and definitely the one I identify with most thoroughly. "I want to invite this so-called chaos / That you think I dare not be". For a simple sentence, this compresses an impressive number of intricate tensions: between nominal chaos and actual order, between what you actively dive into and what you passively "invite", between what you declare you intend to do and what you actually end up doing and what you do without saying anything first, between these two people, between his beliefs about her limits and hers, between wisdom and "daring", between fear and curiosity. At heart, I think, it's half a promise and half a plea. We promise to try, and we ask for help. We want to be braver, in the face of the same fears, but we also want there to be less to fear. We want to throw ourselves off of cliffs, and we only ask that the water do its part by rising to meet us halfway. The next song, in fact, the meditative "Not All Me", immediately retreats again, and demands to share responsibility.
If you wonder why there isn't another "You Oughta Know" here, "This Grudge" is the answer. Alanis once made vengeance into an intoxicant, but that was always cheating, and this small, plaintive song, deliberately distant from "You Oughta Know"'s fury, is her self-freeing realization that hatred is the opposite of release. This lesson might have been more effective at a higher energy, since part of the reason vengeance seems more appealing than forgiveness is that nobody ever makes forgiveness sound like that much fun, but Alanis saves that trick for "Spineless", throwing herself into the ebulliently self-destructive choruses before explaining her hope that defining the errors will help prevent them.
And the album ends with its lead single, "Everything", an exit song so unmistakable that even its own video feels like the closing credits for something. This is a thankful album, and it ends with its greatest thanks. "Everything" is the flip-side of "Knees of My Bees", an alternately withering and aggrandizing self-assessment. The chorus thanks him for embracing her flaws as well as her virtues. Embracing flaws is hard, of course, and when you thank somebody for it, you're probably thanking them more for willingness than completeness. And so she sings, at the end, "And you're still here." And that, in the end, is the biggest thing we promise each other, and the thing we will probably always fear we don't deserve and be most profoundly grateful for when it's given to us even though we're right.
Juliana Hatfield: In Exile Deo
Juliana Hatfield made one of those records I embraced like I'd somehow forgot I helped make it, too, once. If we measure art by effect, Bed inspired me to propose only-semi-rhetorical marriage to a stranger, which has to at least be in my top five of personal reactions. But it's been a while since her last solo album, and I hated the intervening Some Girls record almost as much as I adored the Blake Babies reunion album. The downside of proposing marriage to a record is that once you decide you don't want to marry the record, after all (and especially after you find a person you do want to marry), it's hard to recover the relationship. Every Juliana Hatfield record will now be, to me, first, a record I don't want to marry. That's a terrible way to start listening, and it chews on my experience of In Exile Deo with slobbery enthusiasm until I don't want to hear it any more. Plainly, this is nobody's fault but mine.
Or it should be nobody's fault but mine, except that listener problems don't preclude creator problems, and I have the slowly solidifying suspicion that much of this album has problems that have nothing to do with me. Or they have to do with me, but not with the story that my reactions to Juliana's other albums were part of. Some Girls bothered me because I couldn't find its spark, and I regret to report that I have no better luck with most of In Exile Deo. The symptoms are the same: songs marooned in listless mid-tempo drone, draped over charmlessly simplistic chord-changes, burdened with drearily repetitive lyrics. You might decide that you think the pace is elegant, and the simplicity is somehow admirable, but I defy you to justify the lyrics. Repeat-the-title-four-times choruses are fine for songs where the words only exist to trasmit fizz, like "MMMBop", but no good at all for songs where the production calls your attention towards mindless spaces where meaningful words should have been. Alanis may write lyrics like they're journal entries, but at least they sound like she was engaged in the writing. Too many of Juliana's here read like she had an excruciating headache and just wanted to go to sleep. Rhymes are lazy, clichés substitute for character development. It's worst when I feel like there is a story she can't muster the energy to tell. No, that's not true. It's worst on the exhaustingly mundane "Dirty Dog", which I know is supposed to be funny, but I have to skip it to have any hope of listening to the second half of the album. Arguably these lost songs are real moments, too, but they sound to me like the journal entries of somebody who won't admit what they're living for, and there's neither shared joy nor vicarious insight in that.
But I hate giving up, even when I can make it into a sort of victory, so I let all my expectations for this record drain safely away, and then I can begin to see how we might start to rebuild it. "Get in Line" is the one quick, bouncy song, and has to be good for something. "Jamie's In Town" juggles half-stops and some processed percussion to give some movement to what elsewhere on the album is rather wearyingly methodical drumming. With a non-x4 chorus the ringing "Tourist" could be a redemptive slow song on a faster album. "Some Rainy Sunday" has twirly organ noises I'd want to salvage.
If there's a great album to be made out of this material, though, not just one fractionally less dead than this, it has to come from two songs. "Because We Love You" needs a better title, enough lines that they only have to be sung once each, and non-phrasebook replacements for "When you hit the road / This time it's a heavy load" and "Even put a monkey on my back", but there's a real story trying to be told, a daughter's terrified plea to her (widowed?) alcoholic father to wake up and help her put their tiny family back together. Neil Young is on the radio, there are characters that the people in the story understand but we do not, and the emotional ripples spread out around each of them, tangling in the water. And the one song I'd save intact, the bounding "Sunshine", is the one that explains what's wrong with all the others. "I've been sleeping through my life. / Now I'm waking up and I want to stand in the sunshine." Yes, exactly. Go stand in the sunshine. And then come back inside and make a record that sounds like you remember how it feels.
The Corrs: Borrowed Heaven
In the interest of calibration, though, I should point out that my version of what standing in the sunshine feels like is more or less the Corrs, which might be enough to send a lot of people scuttling back indoors. In my mind the Corrs always sound like Enya Lite, but on Borrowed Heaven, their new album, it's probably more accurate to think of them as a less-lithe A*Teens covering Stretch Princess songs with only the most token Celtic touches. I'm sure it's undignified for a thirty-seven-year-old to admit to preferring anything this blithely sugary to Juliana's vastly less-contrived gloom, much less to the new Patti Smith or PJ Harvey albums I have absolutely no intention of buying, but it's summer, and I'm getting married soon, and if you want to feel like you've been eating lukewarm ramen in basement apartments with your shades down for the last five years, you'll do it without me. "In the heeeeeeat of / Summer sunshine," Andrea flirts, "I miss you!" There's a token violin, but the drum loop is a shameless teen-pop preset, and I refuse to mind. "Angel" is a dizzy wake anthem, and almost certainly the chirpiest requiem in pop history. "Hideaway" sighs and swells into a dopily optimistic exhortation that would probably make the girl in "Silent All These Years" knife them, but we should dream of everybody's challenges being this trivially dismissed. "Long Night" is a swooping lullaby ready, with only small adjustments to the arrangement, for the next Shania Twain album. "Goodbye", with a lovely murmuring bass under epic piano and sinuous harmonies, could be the Bangles after a Marie Fredriksson arena-balladry master-class. I have no personal use for the comissioned flutter-jazz digression "Time Enough for Tears" (the end-credits music for the movie In America), but "Humdrum" bounces between jerky dance-strut verses that could be Hanson chasing the Backstreet Boys and streamlined choruses that veer uncannily close to Stretch Princess. The handclap-goaded "Even If" makes the A*Teens themselves seem a little somber, and tosses in maybe the album's most deadpan Celtic break. "Confidence for Quiet" groans and glides, and actually sounds like a rock song for about a third of a second as Andrea rushes the end of the word "quiet". "Baby Be Brave" is the one real mid-energy song, and "Silver Strand" ends the album with an instrumental, which is Corrs tradition but seems increasingly arbitrary as they steadily gallop away from their roots.
And sunshine would be enough for me, and has been enough on cloudier albums than this, but there is one treasure here of another level entirely. "Borrowed Heaven" itself is at once slower, more haunted, airier and more humane, like Massive Attack weaving together early Talk Talk and early Clannad records. For once Andrea lets the music lead, and the repetition of the word "borrowed" is an excellent object lesson in how music can make a repeated word sound like a thought deliberately suspended for the listener's inspection. And then, for the final minute, Ladysmith Black Mambazo join in, and the planet is the size it is so that these moments when we find each other across it are rare enough that we understand their value.