Step by Step


Ah, the mid ’90s. A time when Gen X’ers resigned to aestheticizing their shaky future suddenly found a bunch of weird, semi-lucrative jobs to fill. The Internet budded into boom, and new “organizational cultures” buzzed about “performance coaching.” It was a heyday for Landmark Forums. Office retreats encouraged ritualized atonement. Jagged Little Pill hit the stores just as perceived prosperity edged out hand-to-mouth scarcity. And when preternaturally preachy Alanis Morissette hooked up with Man in the Mirror Glen Ballard, pop sanctimony would never be the same. Recasting the verbosity of fellow Canadian avenging angel Joni Mitchell, Alanis spewed old-soul caveats, post-fem pep talks, and new age hellfire. The promise: If we came correct, good vibes would be kozmo.commed right to our doorstep.

These days, we’re temp-jobbing if we’re lucky. G-Dub’s dogma is eating our karma, and the only cosmic force heading our way is a Day After Tomorrow tidal wave of global ill will. But Alanis, goddess bless her, is as programmatic as ever. Still equating bad love with addiction, our former supposed former infatuation junkie starts So Called Chaos with the tuneful rubric “Eight Easy Steps.” On its heels, “[The Only Way] Out Is Thru” returns to the shimmer and thwap of Pill, our guru ensuring not a beat goes by without a syllable of wisdom attached. But it’s just that stridency we love. The world-kitsched “Doth I Protest Too Much” is a chin-up for jilted sophisticates who calm themselves in heartbreak with overworked constructions like “I’m not insecure, as such.” Yes, it’s a special kind of labored playfulness that births lines like “You make the knees of my bees weak.” (She has bees??)

The overshare of Alanis’s self-improvement process still has a kooky charm. “Excuses,” she sings, “have kept me blocked,” and her “deadlines, meetings, and contracts” are as fun as commercials featuring the sound of typing. But just when you think you can’t take any more dissections of the I, “The Grudge” breaks into full-throated musical theater—too smart for Webber, too earnest for Sondheim, but transcendently cheesy and sublime nonetheless, and suggesting nostalgia for something even further back than the eve of dotcom.

Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, is living in the now with a vengeance. She may have ditched dirge-merchant production squad the Matrix, but the the younger Ontario-born yeller again brings her mad face and pro-tooled pipes to the task of soundtracking current strife. Yeah, she’s singing about boys and breakups, but those world-dominating guitars crash around her with apocalyptic ferocity, her voice evoking the shrill manifest destiny of an urgent communiqué rushing through fiber optics. She’s got one hand in her pocket, and the other one is, y’know, killing Bill. And, as before, the combined sonics address larger complications than mere schoolyard politics.

She may not be as saved as Christian rocker Amy Lee, but her blared “No one understands!” on “Take Me Away” sounds more like a cry from the cross than a sk8r-boi rescue fantasy. And the bombastic “Together” elides bedroom-decorating depression with wind-tunnel social alienation: “When I’m alone I feel so much better/When I’m around you I don’t feel . . . together.” We bang head, as the monstrous sound suction defenestrates us. And by the time our angry imp gets to “holding hands we’ll fall,” we’re already plunging beyond evanescence.

Nothing else quite achieves that t.A.T.u.-ed blare. The knockin’-around single “Don’t Tell Me” is Avril’s requisite abstinence song, where she advises a boy that his charm will not “get you in my pants,” adding “I’ll have to kick your ass/So that you never forget.” Blink-y bouncer “He Wasn’t” is a Tony Hawk pop shuv-it, and “Fall to Pieces” ‘ formula mawk gets buoyed up by a breakup dust-off offering her own anger-management bromide for these frustrating, impotent times. No time for Alanis’s brainy self-recriminations. Two easy steps: “freak out—let it go.”