Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Jagged Little Pill: Review for Amazon

Pure Estrogen High

After Alanis Morrisette's "Jagged Little Pill" came out in 1995, radio played the heck out of several different songs on it. I liked what I heard, and I purchased the CD, but put it away and listened to it rarely if at all.

Now at a distance of more than 10 years, I pulled out the CD to give it a fresh hearing and decide how it stands up to the test of time. First observation is that it still stands alone--there is nothing really like it, and that includes the subsequent albums by Alanis herself. There are some suggestions of her pull-your-hair-back-and-belt-it-out performance in others` work--I'm thinking particularly of Katy Perry or, very differently, of Slater-Kinney.. I am still struck that this is a unique artistic work, though, the female equivalent of early albums by The Who, or The Rolling Stones in their most popular phase in the `70's and `80's: a pure expression of hormonal-driven emotion.

This is not to say that she did this all by herself: full props to her partner, musical accompanist, and producer Glen Ballard for his contributions. Some of the songs were just Glen and Alanis, take after take, layer after layer, but there are other strong musical contributions, especially Benmont Tench on keyboards and some guest guitarists (Michael Landau, and Dave Navarro and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers). Me, I love the layered sound, and Ballard brought it right up to the line of being overproduced. But not over it: the effect is to give a full, detailed frame to enhance the power of her vocal performances.

I would generalize those performances by saying they are fairly dripping with emotion. The range of emotions, and the dynamics suiting them, vary quite a lot, though: fury at the lover who scorned her ("You Oughta Know"), and at a record producer who didn't take her seriously ("Right Through You"), disgust at the weakness of others ("Wake Up", "Not the Doctor"), but also sympathy ("Mary Jane"), a pure expression of love for her companion ("Head Over Feet"), and some real , wise recognition of the ambiguity in life ("Perfect", "Hand In Pocket", "Ironic").

One of my two favorite cuts on the disk is "All I Really Want", which I take as humorous (if not, it would be insufferable!)--a puckish, self-mocking lyric set to a whiny, Oriental soundtrack (think "hippie chick") that includes her "short list" of deliverables: patience, deliverance, companionship, sincerity, purity, spirituality, profundity, intellectuality, peace, harmony, and justice. (I'm reminded of the Stones in "Some Girls" and their stereotypes of women: "American women want...everything in the world you can possibly imagine." OK, she's Canadian, but you get the idea.)

Catholic School as Metaphor for Universal Experience

My favorite song on the album, though, and one of my absolute all-time favorites, is "Forgiven", which I notice many of my fellow Amazon reviewers have shied away from trying to interpret. On the face of it, it's a rueful remembrance of her bad old days in Catholic school, from which she has managed to recover her faith. I think there's something more, though.

The framing of the message is a supremely long crescendo, from acoustic guitar and soft crooning, to a massive, wall-banging chorus with Alanis wailing the chorus at the top of her lungs, the notes tinged heavily with emotion. And what a chorus:

"We all had our reasons to be there/We all had a thing or two to learn/We all needed something to cling to/So we did";
and the second chorus:
"We all had delusions in our head/We all had our minds made up for us/We had to believe in something/So we did".

There, in a few short lines, is a summary of the entire lived experience of most of humanity, from the very beginnings of time all the way to the present, and well into the future. So, yes, I think there's something there. Whatever her sins, for those lines alone I would judge her to be "forgiven".

I can see how some might not like this album: for the purist, for example, she shows a beautiful voice, then abuses it terribly. She sounds screechy at times, and the anger can be off-putting: many of my brothers had defensive, cover-your-crotch reactions. (An acoustic version of the songs put out 10 years later might be a good corrective for those who thought it "too angry".) After JLP, though, it can never be said that women can`t rock just as furiously as men, and in their own mode, not merely a pale imitation of male rock. Her performance on this album was a pure expression of human nature (for at least half of humanity), and as such it demands at least our respect.

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