Last week, I was on a business trip to Orlando, where I caught one of the stops on Alanis Morissette’s Intimate & Acoustic tour. It was the first time I’d ever seen her live, and I enjoyed the show. The stripped-down nature of the performance gave the show a special air. Predictably, she performed all of her hits from her smash album Jagged Little Pill, but also did a selection of her newer songs that casual audiences aren’t as familiar with.
This gave me an idea for a post. I thought I’d do a sort of retrospective on Alanis’s career, highlighting each of her studio albums and talk about her evolution as an artist. Most fans aren’t familiar with the full scope of her work, and this would be a way to talk about it all. If this goes well, maybe I’ll pick some other artists who’ve had a long career and make it a recurring segment.
Anyway, one thing people don’t realize about Alanis is that she had two albums before her mainstream breakout, Alanis (1991) and Now Is The Time (1992). They were only released in Canada, and contained much more of a dance-pop feel than the edgier, rockier quality of what was to come. I’ve never listened to either of these albums, so I don’t have too much to say about them, but the experiences Alanis had making them would inform her later career. Record executives placed massive pressure on her to lose weight before her debut album came out, which caused her to develop anorexia and bulimia, leading her into therapy that she would discuss on future albums. She also gives a lot of lectures on wellness and eating right these days.
Then came the monster. Her third album Jagged Little Pill (1995) is what most audiences know her for. This would be her first album showcasing the alternative rock style that would come to define her in the future. Her first single off this album, “You Oughta Know,” became an instant hit with its gritty, authentic depiction of the end of one of Morissette’s relationships (though which one still remains a mystery). Her other singles from the album also retain that gritty sound, but don’t really feed into the “Angry White Female” mold that many painted her into after the success of her first single. “Ironic” was her most successful single from the album, hitting #1 in Canada and the top 10 in 9 other countries. Other strong singles from this album include “You Learn” (the song that made me an Alanis fan), “Hand in My Pocket,” “Head Over Feet,” and “All I Really Want.”
I depart from many in the mainstream in that I believe Jagged Little Pill is not Alanis’s best work. The singles are great songs, but I don’t really view the album as a finished product. There’s many clues in here that Alanis is still figuring out who she is as an artist. She goes overboard with the screamy-shouty thing on a few tracks, something that she learns to temper on future albums.
Morissette’s follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) pleased audiences as a follow-up. The album covers references the tenants of Buddhism, which Morissette learned about on a 1997 trip to India. The songs “Baba” and “Thank U,” two of the best on the album, directly reference this trip. The latter song won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, to go with the many accolades she’d already collected. Around the same time, she wrote “Uninvited” and “Still” for movie soundtracks, with the former song winning her more awards. “So Pure” and “That I Would Be Good” also gained significant airplay. While I like this album too, I find myself skipping over it a lot when I’m making my way through Alanis’s albums. It has good songs on it, but there’s just as many instances in which she drifts off into Weirdland. Though she does display a lot of evolution and progress as an artist here, I don’t think this album represents the peak of her abilities.
Ironically (like rain on your wedding day), the album in which I thought Alanis rounded into form is the one where she began to fade from mainstream consciousness. Under Rug Swept (2001) had the least filler of any of her albums to date, and focuses on the theme of “mending unions and bridging gaps,” as she says in an interview. Her lyrics on this album reflect a new maturity and insight that she would display on future recordings. I admit, I may be biased in my view of the album, because my favorite song of hers, “So Unsexy” is on here. That song struck an intensely personal chord with me to the point that I felt I could have written it. Morissette described the song as “getting into the underbelly of some of my insecurities… why little tiny things that are innocuous and inconsequential are translated in my own mind as to be taken so personally … as long as I have my own back, it’s not as scary and it’s not as horrifying.” As an aside, I love how open and honest Morissette is about her creative process. She’s always willing to discuss her songs’ meanings with fans, and I appreciate that. Other highlights from So-Called Chaos include “21 Things I Want in a Lover,” which begins with the kind of bloody guitar riff that we’re used to hearing from Alanis, and “Precious Illusions,” which talks about bridging the gap between taking charge of one’s life versus sleepwalking through it.
Alanis’s newfound maturity and focus continued with So-Called Chaos (2004), the second in a run of three consecutive albums I believe to be her best. This one has more cohesion than any of her previous efforts, and flows well from start to finish. It is also probably her most positive album, with catchy and accessible efforts like “Knees of My Bees,” and “Everything.” There’s also some interesting insights in the lyrics here too, with “Eight Easy Steps,” a tongue-in-cheek look at self-help and “Out Is Through,” which discusses how the only way through many problems is to put one foot in front of the other and walk through them, a concept which I feel many people need to understand. Unfortunately, I think many music critics disliked this album because they had pigeonholed Morissette into the aforementioned “Angry White Female” persona, and didn’t like that she veered away from that. She would release an acoustic version of her debut album in 2005.
Flavors of Entanglement (2008) features Morissette embracing the electronica influence that began to creep into pop music around this time, as shown by her selection of Guy Sigsworth as producer, who is known for helping artists integrate those sounds. The result is a good mix of her alt-rock sound and electronic pop. Probably the song most emblematic of this is “Citizen of the Planet,” which combines a synth backbone with electric guitar mixed in. Her penchant for interesting lyrics continues with “Underneath,” which talks about how people’s own grudges and attitudes prevent them from making the world a better place. These attitudes that we have in our own lives “show up as bigger symptoms out there” in the real world. “Incomplete” discusses how people are always learning, and that the “one day” that many aspire to where everything will fall into place perfectly just doesn’t happen. She also slows it down with “Torch” and “Not As We,” two songs which depict her sadness and vulnerability in the wake of her failed engagement to actor Ryan Reynolds.
Alanis continued the trend with Havoc and Bright Lights (2012), but in my opinion she goes a little overboard again. While the single “Guardian” is a bona fide hit, there aren’t any other songs on here that I would listen to regularly. The album is a bit overproduced, and she tries to mix the dark nature of some of her previous work with her new electronica sensibilities, and it comes off as contrived at times. “Woman Down” and the bonus track “Will You Be My Girlfriend?” are enjoyable, but otherwise the album is mostly ordinary when compared with her past successes. I’ll be interested to see if she continues in this direction with her next record.
So there you have it, from Tiffany clone to scorned lover to happy wife and mother, Alanis Morissette’s career has been a rich and eventful one. Let me know in the comments if you liked this new format, and I might do it again. Feel free to suggest an artist you might think this would work well with, too 🙂