Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Platinum Bomb?

Alanis Morissette slides into a sophomore slump

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Last week, Canadian pop phenom Alanis Morissette performed just over half of the songs from her forthcoming album at Avalon in front of roughly 1500 paying customers. That eager crowd represented only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who will begin lining up before midnight this Monday to purchase her new Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick, in stores Tuesday), regardless of what gets said in the meantime by myself or the other critics who saw the Avalon show or any of the 12 other dates Morissette performed at similar venues across the country. (And then there are the few of us who have been allowed to hear the new disc played over the phone from Morissette's publicist's office.) Indeed, there is little doubt that the album will debut at the top of the currently hip-hop-dominated Billboard album sales chart, easily outselling November 3 releases by Beck and the Cardigans, as well as an Oasis B-sides compilation and a U2 two-disc retrospective. That the 17-song album will then remain at or very near the top of the chart throughout what's being touted as one of the biggest release months in the history of the record business -- with new discs due from Offspring, Jewel, Garth Brooks, Ice Cube, and Metallica, to name only a familiar few -- is almost a foregone conclusion.

Twenty-four-year-old Alanis Morissette is the biggest-selling rock artist of the decade. Her 1995 US debut, Jagged Little Pill (Maverick), the former Ottawa teen queen's third Canadian release, moved 16 million copies. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie will likely sell a minimum of eight million regardless of anything else that might happen in the next few weeks. At least, that's how the follow-up to the 12th-best-selling album of all time has been positioned. She has, however, been here before. In October of 1992, coming off the platinum-in-Canada success of her 1991 debut, Alanis, Morissette, who was then the star of a Canadian variety show called You Can't Do That on Television, released her second album, Now Is the Time, only to discover that she'd worn out her welcome as the Debbie Gibson of the North. After moving only half as many units as Alanis, the follow-up fizzled and Morissette's first career was over.

The stakes this time around are much higher, both for Morissette and for the record business in general, which is hoping that the consumer excitement generated by Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie will have something resembling a trickle-down effect throughout the industry. The theory is that people eager to purchase the new Morissette disc will also pick up another CD or two on their way to the register. That is one of the more plausible explanations being given for the relatively large number of big releases coming out in November. The one variable that rarely gets figured into this equation is whether Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is good enough to deliver on its expectations, and whether popular support for Morissette herself is strong enough to accomplish the rest.

"No" and "Hard to say" were the answers suggested by her Avalon performance. The singer may be on the verge of what amounts to a platinum-lined sophomore slump. Next to the Jagged Little hits ( "Hand in My Pocket," "All I Really Want," and "You Oughta Know") that peppered the 17-song set, the new tunes seemed, well, a little thin. One, "Are You Still Mad," sounded like a rewrite of her contribution to the City of Angels soundtrack ("Uninvited"), with its crawling piano arpeggios and power-ballad power chords. Others ("Sympathetic Character," "Joining You," "I Was Hoping") relied on some of Jagged Little Pill's basic devices -- a tense verse leading into an explosive chorus, dramatic big-voiced vocals sung with passion and intensity, a veneer of angst -- but lacked those nifty little melodic touches that gave even lesser tunes like "Ironic" their kick.

Back before Jagged Little Pill had sold its first million, Morissette played a similar show at the Paradise; and the hit-single-to-be "You Oughta Know," with its tightly clenched verses, climactic guitar-driven chorus, and salient line ("Are you thinking of me when you fuck her"), leapt out of the otherwise mostly unremarkable alterna-rock mix. At Avalon the very same clenched verses, climactic chorus, and salient line cast an imposing shadow over the next song in the set, the new single "Thank U," with its U2-style guitar atmospheres and repetitive stream-of-consciousness lyrics that sound like daily affirmations: Monday: "How 'bout me enjoying the moment for once"; Tuesday: "How 'bout no longer being masochistic."

Morissette opened the show with a trio of Infatuation Junkie's harder-rocking tunes that brought to mind Pat Benatar's Top 40 reign in the '80s: the metallic, feedback-laced "Baba," the turgid and churning "Can't Not," the dense, Eastern-tinged "Would Not Come." Like "Thank U," they all left her without a solid hook to hang that big voice of hers on, relying on numbingly repetitive soul-searching lyrics to make their point instead of, say, the playful details ("My sweater is on backwards and inside out") and melodic guitar riff that lent color to the spiritual questing of "All I Really Want." "I've seen them give their drugs up in place of makeshift altars/I've heard them chanting kali kali frantically" is a representative cross-section from "Baba," which goes on to list a number of such things the singer has seen, heard, and watched. "Can't Not" features a litany of "because we can't," whereas "Would Not Come," which boasts a grand orchestral opening on the album, opts for a dozen or so variations on "If I": "If I'm masculine I will be taken more seriously"; "If I am famous then maybe I'll feel good in my skin."

The highlight of the set was a full-band treatment of Jagged Little Pill's hidden a cappella track, "Your House." The song -- a confessional and rather disturbing fantasy in which the singer recounts sneaking into a lover's house, taking off her clothes, putting on his robe, and generally acting as if she were auditioning for the female lead in the sequel to Fatal Attraction -- is what Morissette does best as a singer and a lyricist. It's vengeance with the kind of vivid details that make fantasies seem chillingly real, and an urgently easy tone that draws you in as a voyeur/accomplice. That's what gave "You Oughta Know" and "All I Really Want," each with its own implied threat, their emotional force. And it's one element that was muted -- when it came across at all -- in the new material Morissette performed.

Infatuation Junkie, though it offers the same polished-by-Glen-Ballard sound, largely eschews the urgency and vengeance of Jagged Little Pill. It's an album about therapy and spiritual healing. On Jagged Little Pill's most effective and affecting tracks, Morissette wrote from the perspective of someone who was working things out for herself; here she's more the passive observer. On "You Oughta Know" she sounded angry; on the new "Sympathetic Character" she says she's angry ("I have as much rage as you have") but sounds a little lost.

The stunning commercial triumph of Jagged Little Pill was a carefully managed affair designed to look and feel as if it were anything but -- which is not unusual these days. Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro were brought in to play on the first single, and the song was distributed first to alternative-rock stations like KROQ in LA. As part of the set-up, Maverick prevailed upon Morissette's Canadian label to take her two previous releases out of circulation, and details of her pre-Jagged Little Pill career were omitted from the bio materials accompanying advance review copies of the album. And, in what turned out to be a particularly wise decision, national media access to Morissette was severely restricted in the early stages to create the impression that she was a grass-roots phenomena.

Yet once an album breaks as big as Jagged Little Pill did, it becomes impossible to control. And so the stage was set for the pointed backlash that welled up in the wake of Morissette's initial successes. It became easy, for example, to point to her association with Glen Ballard, the veteran LA song doctor who co-wrote and produced Jagged Little Pill, as evidence that she was simply an alterna-prop puppet acting out an angst-ridden routine that was the mid-'90s analogue to the Debbie Gibson dance-pop sensation of the late '80s. And when Jagged Little Pill came up the charts right behind Hootie & the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View Mirror, it was hard not to hear the slick smack of the snare on "You Oughta Know" as the sound of the final nails being driven into alternative rock's coffin. The real alternative, the argument went, had been forever cheapened and degraded by fake alternatives, and indie rock's real blow-job queen (Liz Phair) had been usurped by a pretender.

In retrospect, such sentiments seem quaint, even to Liz Phair herself, who in one of her new songs ("Shitloads of Money") sarcastically points out that money pays the bills much more effectively than underground credibility. Underground credibility has been irrelevant to Morissette for a long time now. In the end, Infatuation Junkie will be judged not on how well it's reviewed but on how well it sells. Which could very easily make it the most lucrative failure of the decade.

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