If nothing else, one can’t possibly accuse Alanis Morissette of trendiness, or of slavishly recreating past successes to increasingly diminishing returns; her latest, Havoc and Bright Lights, is her fifth post-Jagged Little Pill studio album, and it at no point sounds like a product of modern times. Nor is it a conscious, past-her-prime attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle; rather, with Havoc, Alanis simply carries on along the natural artistic path she’s forged for herself. That’s commendable in a lot of ways: what it’s not is particularly interesting.
A revisionist history rewind isn’t necessary in this case; we all know Morissette’s well-worn career arc, how “You Oughtta Know” was apparently the first angry break-up song in the world and granted humble female musicians the world over the right to be pissed off, and also to perform sex acts at the movies. Except that’s not really accurate: yes, the song that introduced Alanis to the world was brimming with righteous anger, but it’s barely indicative of its parent album, much less the singer’s career. The angry castrating firebrand that makes all the rock critics say “wow, Alanis has really mellowed out with age” is a bit of a red herring, a character that only really existed for like four minutes. EvenJagged Little Pill was a lot more confessional than it was angry – there were moments of fury, sure, but also moments of catharsis and naked honesty.
Me, I’ve avoided Alanis since Jagged Little Pill‘s stellar follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. That hasn’t been a particularly conscious choice; there’s just a lot of music out there, and only so many hours in the day. The thing is, though Havoc is several records removed from Junkie, it’s not much of a leap, artistically. It’s certainly less restlessly experimental – Junkie was lovely for its wild stylistic detours – but it traffics in the same clean production and confessional lyricism, and occasionally dips an exploratory toe into the deep end.
Havoc‘s best moments keep Alanis in the box that her singles suggest she’s been in for the past decade. Album opener “Guardian”, for example, breaks no molds, finding her squarely in confessional, mid-tempo rock mode, but it’s a lovely statement of devotion and purpose (clearly informed by new motherhood), and a sterling representation of her ability to write a big-hearted, evocative chorus. “Empathy” and “Spiral” are similar, exhuming the singer’s battered diary and pasting the sentiments to Morissette’s most nostalgic “nineties rock” setting. (Guilty pleasure points liberally doled out by writer with one ear still lodged in the music of his teens; spiral even kind of sounds like The Coors, and who sounds like The Coors anymore? Or remembers The Coors?)
And there’s a certain degree to which this kind of record – the sounds of Alanis Morissette’s yesterdays paired with the mostly-content sentiments of the singer’s todays – would be appealing; Alanis, after all, has not quite faltered as a songwriter or a singer. She’s maintained her crisp vocal tone and knack for a solid hook. The problem is, Havoc and Bright Lights too often retreats into several of Alanis’ other musical personas – the Alanis that likes to experiment with electronica, for example, or the angry rock-chick that critics seem to think Alanis is, or the Alanis overly obsessed with watered-down, vaguely middle-eastern culture. “Woman Down” is an agreeable feminist screed set to ugly, pulsating dance-rock; “Celebrity” recalls earlier success “Uninvited” with all of the paranoid melodrama surgically removed. There was a point in Alanis’ career that this kind of sideways excursion was an agreeable detour for the listener – remember when Alanis first indulged her dance-y side with the lovely “So Pure”? – but now it’s unfortunate to hear some of her most passionate (and borderline insightful, although little she says in the selling-your-soul-for-fame satire “Celebrity” hasn’t been said in thousands of blog posts about Jersey Shore) sentiments couched in such trying musical slogs.
Overall, Havoc can’t help but feel a little disjointed – it’s nice that Alanis tries new things, sure, but she’s clearly more in her comfort zone with a big, soaring chorus and a universal sentiment to peddle. At this point, the “kooky” electronic songs don’t so much excite as they do remind us of when Tori Amos did that sort of thing better in the mid-late ’90s. The best songs on Havoc remind us of her innate melodic gifts so much that it’s disheartening to hear the worst songs actively try to make us forget about it.