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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jagged Little Pill

To ease back into writing reviews after a couple weeks off, I thought I’d start with one of the hinges of my adolescent musical life, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. This album quickly became a phenomenon after its release in 1995, and it pushed me into an awareness of popular music. In the more than 10 years since its release, it’s become a modern classic.

The album begins with a power chord on electric guitar and a harmonica. “All I Really Want” was never a single, but because it’s the album-opener, it leaves just as much of a lasting impression as her more famous songs. In it, she’s shrieking (sometimes anxiously, deliciously off-key) about seeking a soulmate, finding someone to understand her, testing the limits of her current, unsatisfying situation: “Why are you so petrified of silence? Here, can you handle this?”

“You Oughta Know” and “Perfect” continue this line of angst and bitterness, but in supremely opposite ways. “You Oughta Know” is the infamous rant against a former lover and his new mistress: “Does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you died, till you died? But you’re still alive.” There is a hard-hitting beat, a wail to her voice, and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. Then, the acoustic chords of “Perfect” begin and it seems to be an antidote to all the tortured-soulness that’s been heard so far, until the lyrics become clear: “Sometimes is never quite enough, if you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love.” The writing process of this song has become the stuff of pop music lore. Apparently, Morissette and her producer, Glen Ballard, wrote it in one sitting—the song just fell out of her. The sickening sweetness of the verses explodes into an anguished bridge: “…You’ll make up for what I blew, what’s the problem? Why are you crying?”

“Hand in my Pocket” is the first lighter track; even it is bittersweet. “I’m broke but I’m happy…I’m lost but I’m hopeful.” It’s an anthem of self-confidence, despite her youth and uncertainty. And 12 years later, those sentiments are still potent and relatable.

On “Right Through You,” Woman Scorned is back. She’s tired of being disregarded (“You took me out to wine, dine, 69 me, but didn’t hear a damn word I say”) and claims revenge through her success: “Now that I’m Miss Thang, now that I’m zillionaire, you scan the credits for your name and wonder why it’s not there.”

“Head Over Feet,” one of the simplest, prettiest songs on the album, is the closest thing to a love song Morissette can muster. She’s trying to adjust to the idea of finally being cared for, and admits that’s she fallen for him, in spite of her better judgment.

The mega-hit, “Ironic,” has been under scrutiny for years for not accurately illustrating irony. Still, it’s one of the only songs on the album with a fuller sound, more intricate orchestrations, and harmonies. However, most of the examples she writes about as ironic are just plain sad: “A traffic jam when you're already late, a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, it's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, it's meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife.”

I have a couple secret favorite tracks. The bigness of Morissete’s voice in “Mary Jane,” which seems to be a plea for herself or a friend to start making the right decisions, is impressive. And “Not the Doctor” is a simmering song about all the pacifiers she does not want to be for him: mother, babysitter, glue, alcohol. Plus, the bass on the chorus rocks hard.

The final single, “Wake Up,” starts with an instrumentation that portends doom. It’s a rail against her him being contrary, wimpy, and an assertion that karma will come back to him eventually.

I’m not convinced Alanis Morissette has produced anything quite as revelatory as Jagged Little Pill since 1995, but I’m pretty sure she’s not as angry anymore. And that’s got to be a good thing.

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