She carries her left hand vestigial, dangling at the wrist, her elbow crooked like some prehistoric bird, as if waiting for it to grow a wing. Alanis stops to let the song course through her. A moment to deliberate. On a stage that evokes a biblical, desertlike stalking space surrounded by monolithic boulders of equipment and the occasional foreground monitor, her musicians bear shadowed witness and provide momentum where words fail, their measured cadenzas keeping up a Bonham-like pace. She paces and rocks in place and waits for her re-en-trance.
Iconic. And ironic. Dontcha think? A twixt-12-and-20 discolette more influenced by the Solid Gold dancers than rock lit-crit, an alumnus of Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television, comes out of the Great White North to encompass the nexus, sexus, and plexus of just about any cultural inclination for this century’s final fling. She’s got the ’90s silhouette: the drive-by wordplay and slice-of-life slashings that is mod hip hop, the alt-grrrl take-no-shit-or-prisoners, the Lilith heart-on-embroidered-sleeve, the divaesque multioctavian epiglottal stops, and the lost boys’ bombast of hardest rock. Not to mention the hit singles.
Jagged Little Pill‘s 1995 transformation of Alanis Morissette may have been hard to swallow for those who knew her when, but when they then turned into nearly 30 million worldwide listeners lined up to take their two every four hours, to say it went down easy is to understand why it’s called pill-popping. A music addict’s first hook is always free. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is the second album of Alanis’s new lifeline, with the same supporting cast (i.e., producer Glen Ballard) and the same rush of tangled emotives, on-mike confessionals, heart-to-heart rendings, and scarred revealings. Craving expiation, closure, she pulls apart tumultuous relationships with an obsessive’s gaze. No detail is too small to elude her scrutiny. No slight is unrelived, no behavior too superfluous to avoid being held up to the light. And to her credit, she’s as hard on herself as on those with whom she’s entangled. Even after mutual ardor and anger have passed into memory, she finds herself perusing details of their take-and-give, trying to figure it all out, come to terms. What went wrong. Right. Fucked up. Forgiven.
That she does this on such a universal level— the idiosyncratic as everyday— implies that no matter how unique each coupling may seem, we all rake each other through the same old coals. “Unsent,” a jumble of letters to lover after lover, dispassionate the way mail can be (a phone call might devolve into sniping and sarcasm, the cup of coffee into a lunge for the throat), seems like it comes from my own to-be-answered pile, or yours, or anyone’s ex’s and why’s. In “Joining You” (with Alanis, communion is always directed at), she pronounces her run-on credo: “We want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds and never talk small and be intuitive and question mightily and find god my tortured beacon.”
The relationship as divine quest is hardly new. Pop music has spoken of it since Isis was a gleam in Ra’s eye, but Alanis, in her torrent of words and wails, her Vedic pleadings and diatribes and slings and crossbow arrows, takes it a step further. She has moved into the realm of the chant, her album a ritual hymnal aimed not at any particular deity but rewarding the singer with the eternal afterlife of airplay. Her songs are structured like prayers, building on repetitions and rolling cumulative fervor and called response. Not a lot of rhyme. She’s one for lists: “Are You Still Mad,” Alanis asks in the mnemonic I can’t get out of my inner ear today, and then recounts each excruciating moment and cutting insight and jabbed thorn of belittle and disrespect. Followed by “Sympathetic Character” enumerating all the ways in which she was afraid, which frees her to trail the title phrase of “That I Would Be Good” with a caveating “even” or “if” for every line.
I am reminded of Herman Hesse, not so much the creator of Steppenwolf, though there is a good deal of Siddharthic postadolescence in Alanis’s diary of song, but the between-two-worlds semiautobiographical painter of Rosshalde, preparing to leave his old life behind to find spiritual nurture in the East. Having transcended not one but two identities— Jagged Little Pill‘s spectacular dream fulfillment made her question her motives for making music— she sets off to find her “silence,” and a reason to create. All of this is decorated by a circularly breathing production that never overwhelms the psychodrama, that in fact celebrates its silence, the space between instruments. The soundscape deftly frames Alanis’s multilayered conversings with skronking guitars and “Blue Jay Way” percussives, strings in which you can feel the movement of the bow and flutes where the drawn breath matters as much as the note. While much is made of Ballard’s Top 40 heritage, this is no Nosferatu at work. If anything, Michael Jackson and Wilson-Phillips have grounded him in stacked, swirling female vocals. Most likely he appreciated the chance to break out of the chocolate factory.
As did our heroine. In SFIJ, she can hardly wait to get under way, bursting the album open midsentence with “Front Row”— its vocals in dialogue, sparring with each other, filtered and flanged. There’s a paean to her female parent (“Heart of the House”), an ode to inspiration’s frustrating wait (“Would Not Come”), dark character studies (“The Couch”), father figures of speech (“Baba”), vignettes of desire denied (“I Was Hoping”), and her own quest for perfection and need to please (“Your Congratulation”).
At the Hammerstein, on a short prealbum tour, she strode purposefully on stage, long slit silk skirt over pants, hindustani-style, running shoes, no-nonsense, resolutely picking up the mike and hefting it to the Doppler siren starting to gather at the back of her throat. She has the rangy swing of a Rebecca Lobo, the sinewy arms and shoulders of triathlon training. Alanis likes to play ping pong backstage, a game of spin and aim. She uses her voice in the same way, as one might put english on a ball, skipping lithely along the cadences of South Asian and Semitic singing, skewing her syllables so they stretch in unlikely places and semitones.
She performed most of the new album and a few old Jagged Little Pill favorites reconfigured to undercut their anthemic qualities. Though you might expect her to milk the audience for sing-alongs, it’s actually the opposite. Aware of not abusing her superstar power— the topic of “One,” where she admits she’s “gotten candy for my self-interest” and calls herself a “sexy treadmill capitalist”— the showgal in her keeps it humane, down to earth; this is a onetime child actress who knows that if you get too full of yourself, you’re likely to be slimed, as she was frequently on Nickelodeon. There is a thank you after every song. In fact, the album’s first video track is called “Thank U.” Appearing naked amidst the detritus of everyday life— on the subway, standing on the street. Whether she can do that on television or not, Alanis seems sweetly and blithely appreciative, unaware that she’s creating any stir. Unclothed the fashion equivalent of silence? Go diva go.