Exhibit A: “I’m the kind of person that will say ‘a person that I’ve been spending time with in a romantic way’ rather than saying ‘my boyfriend.’ ”
Exhibit B: “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
Exhibit C: “That particular month we needed time to marinate in what ‘us’ meant.”
So which one is (a) Alanis Morissette singing? (b) Alanis Morissette talking? (c) Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon? The Greenstreet quote’s obvious (especially as it was Peter Lorre who had the boyfriend in The Maltese Falcon), but sorting out the other two’s tricky—depending upon your fondness for circular doublespeak, it’s either heartening or alarming how much Alanis talks exactly like she writes. For the record, Exhibit C is lifted from “That Particular Time” off Alanis’s new Under Rug Swept, making her the first singer-songwriter since Hasil Adkins to examine a failed relationship in terms of culinary technique. Exhibit A, from a recent interview with The New York Times, finds Alanis sounding very much like a woman who likes talking like a woman who talks like Alanis Morissette.
Good try, Jon Voight, John Turturro, and Dennis Miller, but the closest thing we’ve got to Howard Cosell right now is Alanis. Much like even non-football fans used to be mesmerized by Cosell’s genius for never using two words when 23 would do, you don’t have to be a love-damaged 17-year-old girl to find Under Rug Swept‘s dense verbiage a trip. Words tumble forth and arrange themselves kaleidoscopically into all sorts of unusual categories. Multi-Syllable We-Can’t-Even-Think-of-a-Word-That-Rhymes Words: “communicative,” “connectedness,” “reciprocity,” “vacillated.” D-Verbs That Nobody Ever Really Uses: “derive,” “divulge,” “dispel,” “disarm,” “discern” (what, no “delineate”?). Support-Group Thanks-for-Sharing Words: “engage in dialogue,” “provide forums,” “conflict resolution,” “playing the victim,” “survival mode,” “midlife crisis.” Ambivalence-Is-Maybe-Possibly-a-Sign-of-Wisdom Words: “not necessarily,” “supposed,” “so-called,” “essentially,” “conditional.” Alanis-Must’ve-Made-These-Up Words: “ungood,” “arms-lengthing.” Perfectly useful, a lot of them, and the point definitely isn’t that dumb is better or purer than smart. I’m just not sure that pop music should come out of a thesaurus. “(I Can’t Derive No) Satisfaction,” “Thank You for Engaging in Dialogue With Me Africa,” “A Person I’ve Been Spending Time With in a Romantic Way’s Back”—the world’s a better place without them.
Under Rug Swept is being sold and written about as Alanis’s psychic excavation of a bad love affair dating back to when she was a teenager. This is news? Hasn’t she been writing about, for, and mostly at this same guy since “You Oughta Know”? (Still a distressing song for me, personally, being someone who can’t even abide occasional whispering in a movie theater.) Alanis was really coy about his identity then, too, suggesting that the blueprint for her whole career resides more in “You’re So Vain” than anything by Joni Mitchell or Patti Smith.
But for all of Under Rug Swept‘s mood of coming-to-terms-and-moving-on, there are still blind spots in Alanis’s latest indictment big enough to drive Saskatchewan through. On “Narcissus,” she ridicules her former partner as a self-centered egoist; meanwhile, Under Rug Swept might just as well be called 11 More Songs Detailing the Emotional Complexity of Me (or at least Nine More, Plus a Couple Where I Pretend I’m a Man). In “21 Things I Want in a Lover,‘‘ self-deprecation is held up as one of Alanis’s ideal virtues; about the closest she herself ever gets on Under Rug Swept is the not exactly damning “I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful.” Come on, girl, you’re supposed to be Canadian—we invented self-deprecation. Alanis’s talk of “selflessness” or “working at this” sends her straw man “running for the door.” Maybe—or maybe it was “I bet you’re wondering when my conditional police will force you to cough up” that scared him off.
If I’m treating Under Rug Swept (even the title’s an unwieldy echo of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) as if it were a lyric sheet rather than a collection of songs, well, the music’s an afterthought for Alanis, too. Greil Marcus, writing about the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent”: “I wonder where the melody came from—did they happen on it, say, My god, we’ve got an all-time pop melody here, what words can we write that could live up to it, or did they derive that all-time pop melody out of a serious lyric, sardonic wit, etc.?” It’s not a question that jumps to mind listening to Under Rug Swept, not when you catch vocal contortionist Alanis squeezing in phrases like “capital punishment” at the end of a line. Of the 21 things I look for in even the most confessional singer-songwriters, a serendipitous gift for the all-time pop melody takes up spots one through seven. That’s what makes “Sugar Mountain,” “Both Sides Now,” “Fire and Rain,” and “Fuck and Run” so indelible—check out their melodies. Alanis has gotten, and continues to get, most of the way there sometimes: “Ironic,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Unsent,” and now “Surrendering,” Under Rug Swept‘s best song. But mostly you get the feeling that her songwriting process goes something like this: ” ‘Post-obstacle’—my god, I’ve got a truly abstruse and daunting word here; what music can I dash off that could live up to it?”
There’s a lot of well-intentioned autobiography pouring out of Under Rug Swept, but I wish it were the work of Thora Birch’s character in Ghost World instead—same level of confusion and venting, but with a sense of humor, some Don Knotts, and lots of sexy mischief-making thrown in. As is, it’s more like the secret diaries of Thora’s draggy art teacher.