There are many ways to talk about Alanis Morissette in 2012, most of which are wrong. There are the ways that require no listening, just cultural osmosis; there always are. They’d be straw men if they weren’t so common: Alanis the rage spigot, a framework that turns every high note into a low sneer and every love song into “You Oughta Know”; Alanis the hippie who swapped loud guitars for their pensive versions because Buddha; Alanis the unironic poetaster, where “unironic” leads into the same pedantic joke about just which literary device is really like raaaiiin …
Suppose you listen, though; you’d still have to bat away dozens of objections and preconceptions, none of which Morissette cares to do much about. As critic Glenn Mcdonald — the most consistent writer on Morrisette over the years — points out, she’s nothing if not reliable. Yes, she still treats syllabic structure roughly the same way a jaywalker treats traffic law. No, her voice hasn’t changed; any silkier sounds were there all along. Yes, she’s still giving interviews where she casually deploys phrases like “new-age conversation.” Yes, those same interviews still ask her the same biographical questions (“Who’s the shady ex? Will there be Full House jokes?”), and she’s dismissing them the same way — writing one track off as a 35-man composite, telling Rolling Stone she’ll “never talk about that.” The first track on her new album Havoc and Bright Lights, “Guardian,” is an unironic song about motherhood. The second, “Woman Down,” is feminist in the too abstract, too second-wave way (verses about your anonymous daughter and sister, chorus directed at “all women-haters”) that doesn’t quite fit this year’s trend of candid, vulnerable writing on female experiences. Weirdly, she’d be more timely if she really did release sixteen “You Oughta Know”s and variations on going down on people in a theater.
That’s the thing, though — it’s pointless to talk about Morissette in the context of any broad musical trend. There’ve been attempts. The same discussion is had every time Lilith Fair is revived or potentially revived, with the same easy jokes, the same debate about what this means for female artists, regardless of whether they were even involved, and the same conflation of Lilith Fair, the festival, with “Lilith Fair,” the largely invented and often pejorative genre. (By the exact definition, Ke$ha qualifies as a Lilith Fair artist. When Morissette announced she’d be releasing an album, The Daily published a vapid roundup of vaguely similar artists (tellingly, the URL still contains the phrase “nineties nymphs”), detailing the supposedly synchronized “comebacks” of artists like Tori Amos and Joan Osborne who’d been steadily releasing albums for years.
These albums tend to have a few things in common. Their sounds are remarkably consistent, but no more than any legacy act. But their sounds aren’t necessarily static. Morissette’s isn’t — even if you dismiss her earliest dance-pop days as outliers, she swapped collaborator and rock hitmaker Glen Ballard mid-career for Guy Sigsworth, best known for collaborating with Imogen Heap on the airy, swooning electronic project Frou Frou. Sometimes those sounds are dated; sometimes, they’re strangely prescient.(Music nerd party trick: Play Flavors of Entanglement’s “Straitjacket” for someone without telling them which Alanis album it’s from. When they hear the wobbly bass at the start and joke about her dubstep Hail Mary move, drop its release date: 2008.) The biggest shock from this summer’s music-piracy debate between David Lowery and Emily White might’ve been the fact, in one op-ed, that metal frontwoman Lita Ford was still releasing music. But their fanbases still pay attention, no matter the news cycle.
So let’s take Havoc and Bright Lights on its own terms. This is supposedly Morissette’s mellower “domestic” album, which only really works if you ignore half the tracks and the fact that people said the same of So-Called Chaos. But “Guardian” works well enough; it’s among the more quintessentially “Alanis” tracks on the record, whether in its chiming stadium rock or its lyrics, which have already been thoroughly deconstructed; it’s every bit as good as her past singles. “Woman Down”’s synth yelps betray something different, though, something Sigsworthian. Indeed, large swaths of the album seem like Frou Frou with Heap swapped out: the dappled percussion and whooshes of “Til You,” the solar-flare sounds that keeps “Lens” from being the stadium shoutalong it edges toward; the twinkles strewn about otherwise straightforward rocker “Spiral” like stars or the intro to “Edge of Evolution,” the most Frou Frou track here, which whirs and clicks as if someone’s recorded a mechanical planetarium. It gets darker sometimes. The most interesting thing about “Celebrity” isn’t its premise, which is exactly what you think it is, or a certain line about a monkey that it’s best to ignore, but its sound; it’s as if this year’s class of Old Hollywood devotees idolized the fame not in David Lynch films but The Social Network, its final clubs and its Trent Reznor score. Its closest analogue, “Numb,” both references and sounds like the Pink Floyd song.
There are ballads, and they work exactly as well as the past batch did, but if you’re listening, you’ll hear something worth the time: how “Til You” unfolds not as a love song but as one long sigh, too content to move much; the way “Win and Win” renders the title phrase free of any corporate-branding malaise, or a suddenly telling line like this one in “Empathy”: “Thank you for getting me.” At this point in her career, she’s earned the statement.
Alanis Morissette’s Havoc and Bright Lights is out 8/28 via Collective Sounds.