Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Awful Shrieking Begins With Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (My Next Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Well, there's "Head Over Feet" and the vocals on the second hidden track
The Bad: Many of the lyrics, Most of the vocals, Much of the production, Many of the instrumentals
The Basics: With its mess of sound and largely lousy lyrics, Jagged Little Pill remains as bad today as it was when it was originally released.

Here's my big confessional moment for the day; for all of my love of Girl Power, Feminism and Equal Rights and Women's Lib and all that, I've never liked the music of Alanis Morissette. I was in college when Jagged Little Pill was released and I heard the five radio singles and I was utterly unimpressed. I joked with my coworker at the time that "angry Canadian" was a stupid oxymoron and Alanis Morissette's music was one of only two things that would get me to change the radio station from the Top 40 pop-rock station I adored in Binghamton (the other, by the way, was Mariah Carey, whose work I loathed as well). I softened toward Morissette when she had the appearance in and song capping Dogma (reviewed here!) and I found myself strangely into the idea of putting her up when she was one of the artists specifically cited as lacking accommodations when Woodstock '99 happened in nearby Rome, NY. No, ultimately she found lodging elsewhere and it's taken me until now to listen to Jagged Little Pill, Morissette's commercial smash album.

And it's a good thing for me I didn't put her up because I don't think any amount of starstruck (which I don't get often anymore) would have stopped me from asking her, "What the hell were you thinking?!"

Jagged Little Pill is a twelve track (or fourteen if one is honest about about it) pop-rock album that clocks in at 57:33 and made Alanis Morissette a household name in the mid-1990s. All of the lyrics were by Morissette and she co-composed the tracks with Glen Ballard. As well, she plays harmonica on a few tracks and sings on all of them. Morissette does not take any sort of producing credit and that is the only out for the artist; otherwise, it seems like she is truly the person moving the works on this album. And in that case, Alanis Morissette's efforts are angry in an amateurish way, lacking in poetics, vocally mismanaged and musically mangled.

Jagged Little Pill is all about being an angry young woman and I suppose it's easy to see why the preteen crowd that wasn't tuned in to Jewel was tuned in to Morissette's works. Her anthemic "You Oughta Know" rocks with a few simple truths. Morissette becomes the right hand of vengeance with her biting lyrics like, "It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced / Are you thinking of me when you fuck her / . . . Every time you speak her name / Does she know how you told me you'd hold me / Until you died, ' til you died / But you're still alive" ("You Oughta Know"). And yes, there is an emotionally satisfying purge rocking out to her signature song, but it also illustrates a truly immature sense of human relations. As painful as it is, people grow and change - and certainly I'm not one to lecture on this, but that idea of "you promised!" is just too simplistic. Actually, the problem is that it is the dangling implication of that specific bit of "You Oughta Know" that guts the song. It's emotionally immature for Morissette to simply sing, you made this promise and you're still alive, so where are you? It's truly vengeful for the singing protagonist to offer the promised death. Yes, "You Oughta Know" would be a fine song if only it incorporated something more emotionally developed than "you said!"; a real sense of vengeance like, "You said you'd love me until you died, so if you're gonna leave me, why don't you die already?"

Lyrically, Morissette's signature "You Oughta Know" is not the only problem. "Right Through You" is a terrible track that embodies why young people are not respected. Declaring herself a star after being rejected, she sings about going back to those who spite her with lines like, "Hello Mr. Man / You didn't think I'd come back / You didn't think I'd show up with my army / And this ammunition on my back / Now that I'm Miss Thing / Now that I'm a zillionaire [SHUDDER!] / You scan the credits for your name / And wonder why it's not there" ("Right Through You"). This is the same emotional maturity as the person who says "I'll kill myself and they'll be sorry when I'm gone!"

The lines tend to use a lot of predictable rhymes and in this way Morissette is pretty much the natural predecessor to Avril Lavigne. The only real surprise is how Morissette mixes up the rhymes on "Hand In My Pocket;" it's too bad the song is so otherwise lousy that it doesn't matter that she is being creative with the rhyme scheme. The best written track might well be the somber "Perfect" which is all about an abused child. Morissette actually has insightful lyrics with lines like "I'll live through you / I'll make you what I never was / If you're the best, then maybe so am I / . . .I'm doing this for your own damn good / You'll make up for what I blew" ("Perfect").

But that's where the decency of "Perfect" ends; at the lyrics. Like many of Morissette's songs on Jagged Little Pill, Morissette's natural vocal talents - which one assumes she has and there is some evidence of on the final track and the opening to "Perfect" - are quickly crushed for the choice to shriek out the lines. Whenever she goes into the higher ranges, Morissette strains and presents a truly awful vocal sound, like cats being grilled alive.

Yeah, it's that bad. On tracks like "Perfect," "All I Really Want" and "Right Through You," Morissette sacrifices her natural voice for production elements and screaming that is atonal and an insult to the pioneering women of pop rock who set up for her to leap into the angry chick chic niche. There might be other places where Morissette used her vocal talents (the song that closes Dogma and subsequent works) but on Jagged Little Pill, Morissette presents a musical mystery of how someone could get a recording contract while presenting such auditory noise that does not seem emblematic of any genuine vocal talent.

And I'm all for songs knocking the way organized religion is used as an oppressive tool to control young people but on "Forgiven" Morissette undermines her lyrics with her vocal presentation of an angry girl sound. It does her, nor her lyrics any service.

Musically, Jagged Little Pill is just terrible. From the opening track, "All I Really Want," which is overproduced noise, the album does not get to a decent sound until the second hidden track, a quiet, vocal song that resonates and actually showcases Morissette's voice. But "All I Really Want" is a great example of how not to open an album. There's the angry-sounding presentation of the lyrics that have Morissette shrieking opposite computerized background vocals and presenting somewhat ridiculous lyrics. But the instrumentals are generic pop guitars, keyboards and programming.

And it's too much. On Jagged Little Pill, ironically, Morissette is afraid of the quiet, something she explicitly rejects on the opening track. All of the songs, save "Ironic," "Mary Jane," "Head Over Feet" and the second hidden track are just packed with sound. I'm not one of those "rock music is noise" people, but damn if every one of the people making that argument didn't pull out Jagged Little Pill, pop-rock lovers would be forced to concede on one work! There is music here, but it's a very noisy album and there's a feeling that much of the sound is filler instead of actually telling the musical story that the artist is attempting to present.

Nowhere is this more clear than with Jagged Little Pill's two versions of "You Oughta Know." One has heavier guitars and the other is more drum and vocal emphasized, expressing more of a seething anger. But that quieter version is an exception to the rules on Jagged Little Pill. Songs like the title track and epitomized by "Right Through You" present Alanis Morissette as an artist drowning her lyrics and any natural voice in a wall of sound, production elements that overwhelm the meaning and any chance of impressing the listener that the angry Canadian had.

The best track is the second hidden track that closes the album with a glimpse that suggests that Morissette can both sing and present an emotionally intelligent poetic protagonist. The absolute worst track is the opening "All I Really Want."

For other, former, Artist Of The Month artists, be sure to check out:
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
Ella Fitzgerald Celebrated - Ella Fitzgerald


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

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

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