“Alanis,” I usually respond. I find that I seem to ask the question a lot on first dates, “Which artist or band do you first remember actually paying attention to the lyrics and discovering that music could mean something?” I know, heady first date material. Of course, I get great answers. So when asked in rebuttal, my response is, as mentioned, “Alanis.”
There’s always been something about the lyrical quality of Alanis Morissette’s writing that has felt invasive, permeating my strongly built walls of protection in saying things that I felt, but didn’t have the guts to say or own even internally. But the emotional hooks were put in place and as she began to write about these moments of self-awareness through the lens of her relationships with people, I, too, felt a sense of ownership of not only my feelings, but the reactionary nature of them.
Alanis has been sort of a guidepost for me in terms of life changes. Being a few years older, each album has served as a benchmark of my own evolution, whether it be in terms of relationships (intimate or not), self-care, self-discipline or just awareness of the world outside me. And because this knowledge came as a secondary lesson from the actual story within the songs themselves, they’re completely relatable – whether you got the lesson at the time or not.
There have been plenty of times where I don’t connect with what the song is saying or about and five years later I return to know exactly what the intention was and the place it came from. Again, just a road map of places you’ve been or places you know to watch out for in the future.
However, it seems that perhaps Alanis has taken a turn on the course of life that I am either unable to relate to at the moment or has become more concerned with the lesson giving than the revelation of the lesson itself.
Her new album Havoc and Bright Lights feels like a step backward musically and a fumbled attempt lyrically.
As a new wife and mother, her life has changed in many capacities that I – as a gay man – can no longer relate to. But again, it doesn’t prevent me from trying to lift the lesson out of it.
But perhaps the problem is that it all feels too self-help. And being Alanis, I know going in that it’s going to be heavy on the Debbie Ford psycho babble, which I can abide by up to a certain degree. But the problem with this album is that it’s musically not interesting enough to lift the lyrical components up and it all feels a bit empty as a result.
The moments you can discern Guy Sigsworth’s brilliance are delicious. But then there’s the glossy production of ‘live band’ laid atop Sigsworth’s sonic creations that leaves the songs feeling inconsistent and never truly strong enough to stand on their own for repeat listens.
“Guardian,” the first single, leaves no lasting impression and doesn’t sound new in the catalog of Morissette thus far. “Woman Down,” while more catchy, again feels like something from Feast On Scraps.
“Til You” is one of the few songs I found endearing and fresh. While the sweeping, sonic ballad is nothing new for her, when Alanis does them right – they’re pretty superb.
Then comes “Celebrity,” which is a disjointed affair that attempts to blend too many sounds and flavors in one song. It’s a mashup basically of “Moratorium” and “Would Not Come,” without reaching the level of either.
If it’s not evident that this album is all self-help, the song titles themselves should give it away. Like with “Empathy,” which is a bumbling lyrical mess. This could be a throwaway album track on a Natalie Merchant track from 1999. So it’s not terrible, but it’s not what I expect of Alanis.
“Lens” is probably the most Jagged Little Pill-esque track and has a chorus that is catchy enough to be put on repeat. It’s just another track – like most – that feels like it’s been done before on a previous effort and probably with greater success. The entire album does come across as the pt. 2 of So Called Chaos. For better or worse.
“Spiral” is a non-descript 90s female empowerment type of song that bears no more commentary. “Numb” at least counters it with a more interesting production.
Then there’s the terrible “Havoc,” which any Alanis fan will remember as a song called, “Not All Me,” a melody not that terribly great to begin with.
“Win and win” is another eastern-tinged track that promises something but doesn’t quite rev up enough to deliver. It’s a lilting affair at best, but not one of the worst tracks on the album. “Receive” is another track where I ask myself, “Was I supposed to by an accompanying self-help book in order to relate to this?”
The only other standout track for me on the album is the closing number, “Edge of Evolution,” which clearly has Sigsworth all over it. But it’s also something we’ve never really heard from Alanis before, with this melodic pattern and stuttering drums. Finally we get a slow-build and a chorus that delivers. Many seems to loathe this track and perhaps my attachment to it is because of my love for Flavors of Entanglement, with this track being the closest evolution – so to speak – of that cosmic sound working well with the live band production. My only complaint is that the vocals feel so background to the track itself, as though there isn’t a strong enough lead vocal.
Maybe the lesson here is that my own story is no longer going to mirror any of the storytellers of my youth. That my own narrative is going to be uniquely my own and that the lessons are no longer coming from this faucet. But the ride thus far has been good and perhaps it’s just a matter of time for me to have to come back to have a better appreciation for this sound and the lyrical content.
But until then, I’ll return to one of my favorite tracks that is totally rooted in self-help but somehow blends it into a song that I find completely relatable. And a reminder that it’s always about the journey toward total self-acceptance and being whole: