Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getting Better, But Still Not A Successful Outing For The Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie!

The Good: Some moments of musical talent, Some decent lyrics/good sense of philosophy, Moments of voice
The Bad: Most of the production, Much of the music is generic and closer to chanting than harmonic
The Basics: With a very average album, Alanis Morissette impresses but fails to wow the listener with Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, a better album than some.

I made no new friends with my review of Alanis Morissette's commercial breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill (reviewed here!). Though I liked it quite a bit more, I doubt I'll make many new friends with my analysis of Morissette's follow-up Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

Clocking in at 71:52 with seventeen tracks, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie represents a fundamental shift in Morissette's commercially safe teen-appeal angst and anger from Jagged Little Pill to a more substantial and spiritual album with more direct and sophisticated philosophical overtones. That ought to be rewarded and lyrically and philosophically, the album excels. However, musically, many of the tracks on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie are bland and while Morissette's vocal talents are better explored on tracks like "Thank U" and "Are You Still Mad" than anything on her prior album, she is not still reaching her full (apparent) potential.

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie also represents a growth of Alanis Morissette as an artist, which one presumes she gained by the commercial success of Jagged Little Pill. On Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie Morissette sings all of the songs which she wrote to music she wrote or co-wrote with Glen Ballard. As well, Morissette takes a co-producing credit with Ballard - which she did not have on the prior endeavor - and she plays the harmonica, flute and piano on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. In other words, this is very much the artistic vision of Morissette.

And for the most part, it's a decent outing that is worthy of attention. Lyrically, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is a stronger album than the average. Alanis Morissette is not plagued by the obsessive need to rhyme all of her end words and that works fairly well for her on this album. So, for example, on "Are You Still Mad" she creates a wonderful rhythm through the less common practice of front repetition as opposed to end rhymes with lines like "Are you still mad I had an emotional affair? / Are you still mad I tried to mold you into / Who I wanted you to be? / Are you still mad I didn't trust your intentions?"

And on this work, Morissette uses a higher level of diction than the average and she has blissfully matured some from the angry young woman who broke onto the scene with "You Oughta Know." So, on tracks like "Can't Not," Morissette opens with far above the usual pop-culture fourth grade vocabulary with lines like "I'd be lying if I said I was completely unscathed / I might be proving you right with my silence or my retaliation / Would I be letting you win in my non reaction?" In that way, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is a real treat. Lyrically, Morissette reaffirms that she's smarter than the average pop culture princess or diva and she writes about things that are for more interesting and mature than the bland, generic anger of unoppressed youth.

As a result, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie has lines that are more poetic, like the title to the album which pops up rather incongruently in a dance track on the album. But Morissette sings about being in therapy ("The Couch"), growing up independent of peer pressure ("UR"), the power of sudden wealth and celebrity ("One" and "I Was Hoping"), and more importantly finding inner peace ("Thank U") and being humbled by relationships ("Unsent"). Thematically, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie strips away the angry Morissette and reveals a more vulnerable artist who is dealing with the conflicts that come from being a commercially successful musical artist. And I like that thematic unity better than anything on anything else I've heard from her.

But lyrically, Morissette falls on the crutch of rhyming the same word with itself far too often. In addition to rhyming the same word with itself - something she does on 5 tracks - she has a terrible sense of repetition on this album. Song after song, lines are repeated over and over again, over and over and over again, the same words. This kills the relistening to the album and it makes some of the tracks straight out painful to listen to. "Thank U" has "thank you" repeated twenty-one times with alternating lines most beginning with "How 'bout . . ." This would not be a bad thing in and of itself, but as an album, the work suffers because it's sandwiched between songs where the lines are all "I've seen . . . I've watched . . . I've heard" ("Baba") and before "Are You Still Mad") (title repeated fifteen times), "Sympathetic Character" ("you were my" repeated twenty-five times), "That I Would Be Good" ("That I would be" opens fourteen of the fifteen lines) and "Can't Not" ("because I can't not" repeated nineteen times) and on and on.

The result is that vocally, much of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie devolves into simple chanting. Much of the album has Morissette chanting more than singing. Sure, the singing has note changes that are not traditionally simple chanting, but more often than not the instrumentals are more varied than the vocals and illustrate greater range than Morissette's voice. She goes from one vocally limited direct-voice/chant presentation to another and the style becomes tired quickly.

While Morissette illustrates greater vocal range by singing in some of the higher ranges without shrieking and shouting more than on her prior endeavor, she limits her music more by the lyrical repetition that creates very simply themes that are repeated constantly in almost every song. So, on songs like "Joining You," she has a fairly traditional "angry Alanis" sound opposite long, chant-like strains listing what youth would do with power or what the traits of a person define about them (depending on one's interpretation of the lyrics). Regardless, the lines are very melodically simple and the tracks hold up poorly as a result.

Sadly, one of the best vocal presentations comes on "Heart Of The House," where Morissette successfully journeys into soprano territory, but her lilting voice accompanies surprisingly unremarkable lyrics and music. And that song is one of the exceptions to the vocal rules on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie which opens with the heavily produced "Front Row" that introduces the more spiritual lyrics of Morissette with a musical monologue that is not even her actual voice (it is so overproduced!).

Musically, some of the songs are still a mess. "Sympathetic Character" finds Morissette singing about abuse and the instrumentals are chaotic and her voice ventures into the screeching territory one hoped she would leave behind with her new themes of spirituality and inner peace. Instead, the song is an atonal mess wherein the scratchy guitars are dominated by percussion on a cymbal set. As the song reaches a crescendo complete with feedback from the shrieking guitars, the listener wonders why a song about betrayal, loss and anger would pluck its title from one of the less sensible concepts. Musically, the song expresses the frustration of the track, but the sloppy construction and noisy quality to it guts the potential that the title is even ironic. There is nothing truly sympathetic about the character and the song gives the listener no genuine sense of worth for the moping after the loss.

Musically, "I Was Hoping" represents one of the worst transgressions in Morissette's career. Combining the story of a musical protagonist who is penitent and growing beyond being a spiteful angry and using the power of her money is heavy drums, synthesizers and guitars that are actually heavier rock than most would expect from an Alanis Morissette album. I've no problem with Morissette utilizing heavier instruments than those would expect from a pop-rock artist, but the music doesn't match the lyrics and it is troubling how the contrast guts the emotional resonance of the lessons of the lyrics.

One of my most serious problems with the music actually comes on one of the better tracks. The quiet and intriguing "That I Would Be Good" features Morissette on a flute and I applaud the use of other musical instruments on pop-rock albums, like the way Sophie B. Hawkins used a banjo on Timbre (reviewed here!). The problem is that on an album as produced as Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie it seems ridiculous that Morissette is sure to include the breaths while she plays. Yes, people breathe when they play the flute and they usually need to inhale deeply to do that. That's reality. But on so many of the tracks things like breaths are removed from the vocals (they are not on the annoying chant of "The Couch") that when they are prominently in the front sound of the flute playing on "That I Would Be Good" the effort screams of "listen, I'm playing the flute!" We believe Morissette can play and were it not for how produced the vocals, programming and other instrumentals like the synthesizers, this would not be an issue, but it seems strangely pandering on this particular track and it has the effect of telegraphing the emotions of the song the way a soundtrack can tell a moviegoer what to feel and when.

Outside that, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is a pretty traditional pop-rock album with guitars, piano, drums and when the songs are not being atonal nightmares ("I Was Hoping"), they are rather traditional pop-dance ("So Pure") or pop-rock ("Front Row") tracks. There are a fair number of more quiet ballads, like "Your Congratulations," but most of the lighter tracks are light pop like "Thank U."

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie came down to a coin toss for me on the "recommend" front because it is a remarkably average album in the final analysis. What is good on one track is gutted by the presentation of the album where the highs get high and the lows plummet to fairly low depths of disappointment for the listener. The album does not hold together well because of the musical, vocal and lyrical repetition. Do I think people ought to give the disc a listen? Yes, for sure. But should they buy it and add it to their musical collection enthusiastically? No, it just does not hold up.

The best track is the musing and considerate "Unsent," the low point might well be the moody "Would Not Come," which comes after just one too many chanty songs.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month reviews, check out my takes on:
Hits and Rarities - Sheryl Crow
Jackie’s Strength (single) – Tori Amos
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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