In 1991, she was a teenage sub-starlet churning out insipid dance-pop, dancing on stage with half-naked men twice her age and helpfully encouraging her audience to “go for the gold and you’ll make it baby.” Half a decade later, she’d become quite the Medusa taunting the man who dumped her by questioning his new love’s willingness to engage in public fellatio.
Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?
As if! Alanis Morissette may well be a lot of laudable things, but her new album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is characterized by the one she’s most obviously not – the forceful woman she spends over 71 minutes convincing herself she can be. Call it an adverse response to fame; call it the lull after the storm; just don’t call it much of an album.
The Framptonishly popular Jagged Little Pill earned Morissette adulation as a Powerful Pop Feminist, equally comfortable in confrontation and demureness, aware of and in both. Slightly misguided praise in that the success of FM radio staples like “Hand in My Pocket” and “Head Over Feet” relied heavily on easily digestible assertions of the banal, to be sure. But, to the album’s credit, its success was derived just as much from its exposÃ©-style vitality. Even though Morissette didn’t have a hell of a lot to say, the way she said it was vaguely punk: she was living what Mark E. Smith called “the R & R dream â€“ R & R as primal scream.”
Junkie’s fatal flaw, then, is in inverting this relationship: it’s primal scream masquerading as rock and roll. Even at her brashest, Morissette evokes not the Fall but Tears for Fears, whose dreadfully didactic “Shout” lurks throughout the album like John Lennon’s “Imagine” on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory. “Shout,” of course, actively sought out primal scream therapy as its topic; Junkie makes no such claims (aside from the obvious “The Couch”), but it’s impossible to listen to without picturing Morissette sitting on that ol’ brown leather couch throughout, “releasing” the tension inside.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the booklet. At least try to make your way through it without running into a sea of unelucidating self-help cliches. “Thank U” asks “how ’bout no longer being masochistic?/how ’bout remembering your divinity?” “Can’t Not” points out that “we cannot help without your willingness.” “Joining You” suggests that “if we were our emotions I’d be joining you.” “Your Congratulations” finds our heroine asserting that “I would’ve run around screaming proudly at the top of my voice.”
All of this is great for Alanis, and I’m thrilled that it’s impacted her positively. But to create an album is to insinuate reason: in art, solipsism is nothing but empty self-indulgence, and there’s a remarkable amount of that to wade through here. When it’s not simply reciting new-age Koans, Junkie’s busy suggesting that the same Koans have far-reaching ramifications.
There’s a token interest in elementality and Eastern philosophy (yes, the two are unfortunately confused here: maybe she discovered both on her post-Pill trip to India) that results in a nude-Alanis-in-a-fetal-pose shot on the disc itself and the patronizing “Baba,” an analysis of Morissette’s Indian experience taken through a tourist’s disposable camera. And there’s a weak stab at playing with gender roles that pops up in the form of pseudo-feminist mother bonding (“Heart of the House”), cheeky role reversals (reaching their nadir in “I sink three pointers and you wax poetically”) and a plethora of dismissals/celebrations of exes.
On Jagged Little Pill it seemed that guitarist/co-writer/arranger/recorder/producer Glen Ballard knew the words had their weaknesses, so he hid them in a savvily prepared, sometimes even gutsily played set of songs. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie suggests that we can chalk that up to dumb luck. Perhaps inspired by the “ambience” of Morissette’s City of Angels prog-rock frightmare “Uninvited,” Ballard stops caring if the songs move anywhere; he’s content to let the piano and strings lie about while the guitars lurch turgidly. A couple of tracks show pointed energy (the opener “Front Row” the best example); a couple remain spare and light (especially “That I Would Be Good”); the rest hang in unwieldy stasis.
A stasis, I might hasten to add, that makes it obvious that Morissette is more Ally McBeal than Gloria Steinem, more Deepak Chopra than the Dalai Lama. Morissette has adopted a new Mark E. Smith dictum: “Repetition, repetition, repetition,” and it’s painfully ill-fitting. Choruses such as that of “Sympathetic Character” â€“ “ you were my best friend/you were my lover/you were my mentor/you were my brother/you were my partner/you were my teacher/you were my very own sympathetic teacher” â€“ are the norm, not the exception, and they’re so viscous and overripe that they make the album’s 17 songs seem like 170.
Morissette spends so much time repeating similar mantras that she never gets anywhere. She preaches maturity and transcendence but devotes one song to belittling an ex-lover she treated like crap. Her struggle for confidence results in trite assurances “that I would be good even if I gained ten pounds.” She encourages us to “burn the books: they’ve got too many names and psychoses” but writes songs steeped in psychobabble that would make Dr. Laura proud.
But all’s not lost. Her next album, I’m sure, will be a genre-busting juggernaut. As long as she goes for the gold, Alanis’ll make it.