Friday, March 18, 2011
Jagged Little Retrospective
Here's some truth to make you feel old: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is a skosh over 15 years old. Yes. Fifteen years ago today, singles from that very album were crashing the Billboard charts. Canadian former teen stars were the toast of the town, Full House stars were afraid to leave their homes, and all sorts of unexpected shit was suddenly ironic.
In all seriousness, though: that album fucking ruled. Roommate Mark thought so too, so we decided to pool our resources as we occasionally do and deliver a retrospective worthy of this album that stood so tall in our teenage lives. Mark already got a head start with tracks 1-7 over at The Critical Condition, so go there NOW to read him if you haven't already.
Below, I've got the back end of the album. Beware: "Irony" Ahead...
TRACK NAME: "Head Over Feet"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "You treat me like I'm a princess. I'm not used to liking that yet."
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "You're my best friend, best friend with benefits"
Mark: In an early draft of this post, I wrote that JLP doesn't have any love songs, which speaks to the stealth sentiment in "Head Over Feet." The crunchy guitars, harmonica solo, and patented AlanisWail make it sound like '90s jam session, as opposed to a soaring declaration. But the lyrics, of course, are all about a woman allowing herself to accept that she's loved. That slant also sets the song apart from your typical cute-boy ballad -- even when she's happy, Alanis looks at her own insecurities. She's not used to be treated well; she's falling for the guy in spite of herself; she's certain this shit is all his fault. (Pink would successfully cop this formula a few years later on songs like "Glitter in the Air" and "Leave Me Alone (I'm Lonely)".)
The splash of vinegar blends nicely with the sweet mid-tempo groove and the hella-catchy chorus. No wonder this was the album's fifth major hit, despite the fact that radio had been working single from it for over a year. Rating: 8 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: I should note that I chose my lyric not so much because it touched me, but to observe that this was 1996 ... did Alanis invent the phrase "friends with benefits"? Can somebody get a research grant and look into this? Anyway, I have a fraught relationship with "Head Over Feet," and much like Alanis in the song, I feel like it won me over despite my reservations. The only part I still unambiguously don't care for is the harmonica solo, but otherwise, this is actually one of the more universally relatable songs on the album (especially if you've never been a lapsed Catholic or dated a sleazy record-company executive). It's just pure gratitude for having encountered a genuinely great guy. She's played this sentiment a lot on subsequent albums (think "Everything" from So-Called Chaos), but it takes on special meaning on this album that is so often about being burned by assholes. Rating: 6 Jagged Little Pills
Average Rating: 7 Jagged Little Pills
TRACK NAME: "Mary Jane"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "I hear you're losing weight again, Mary Jane. Do you ever wonder who you're losing it for?"
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "Well, it's full speed, baby / on this roller-coaster"
Mark: Color me surprised: Fifteen years later, this has become one of my favorite songs on the album. I liked it back in the day, sure, but now I'm mildly obsessed. Alanis's vocal, for one thing, shows the full power of her range, from the trembling and quiet verses to the loud and emotional choruses. The track also veers in unexpected directions, like the multi-tracked crescendo near the end, when she sings "keep dry." It's the first time the song has used that kind of vocal layering, and it adds a touch of ethereal elegance. For me, this is the album's most successful ballad, easy and beautiful where "Perfect" and "Forgiven" are strained and aggressive. Rating: 10 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: This is going to sound both bizarre and shallow, but while I had always found this song to be a sad little gem on the album's back half, my opinion of this song really changed when I saw Nikki McKibbin perform it on the first season of American Idol. Not that she was so great (it was actually one of her better performances, but that's seriously not saying much), but it made me realize that of all the hits on JLP, this little album cut stood out six years later. And you can see why -- it's sad and serious without being overly maudlin, and there are moments (like the lyric I picked out) where it really soars. Also, I always this of this song as a kind of psychic twin to Tori Amos's "Marianne" (between JLP and Boys for Pele, 1996 was all angst and estrogen for me). Rating: 7 Jagged Little Pills
Average rating: 8.5 Jagged Little Pills
TRACK NAME: "Ironic"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "It's meeting the man of my dreams... and then meeting his beautiful wife."
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife"
Mark: Color me surprised, yet again! Of all the big hits on Jagged Little Pill, this one is now my least favorite. I used to love it, though. That memory and the undeniable assault of the chorus are keeping me from completely writing it off. But otherwise... damn. A thousand monkeys have written at a thousand typewriters about how little irony is actually present in the lyrics -- rain on your wedding day is really just inconvenient, a black fly in your Chardonnay is really just gross, etc. -- but that doesn't make the glaring misuse of the concept any less frustrating. Plus, underneath its poor grasp of grammar, the song seems to think it's Macy Gray, teaching me something on how life is. However, I don't think I needed anyone's help figuring out that things don't always turn out as I expected them to.
On top of all that, the music in this song doesn't hold up for me at all. Do we need that many vocal ad-libs at the end, with the "funny-funny-waaaays?" And do we need so much echo on the acoustic guitar? How weird, I guess, that the album's biggest chart hit (it peaked at #4) is also the one I'd cut first. Rating: 3 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: I always wondered why Alanis didn't just steer into the skid and say that her failure to deliver proper irony in a song called "Ironic" made the entire song, in fact, ironic. That said, while I agree with Mark that this particular observation has been done to death, Alanis doesn't really leave us much room since there's no other purpose to the song, really, but to point out these non-ironic "ironies." I still do like the actual song, though; that perfectly layered chorus practically demand you chime in. Rating: 5 Jagged Little Pills
Average rating: 4 Jagged Little Pills
TRACK NAME: "Not the Doctor"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "I don't wanna be responsible for your fractured heart and its wounded beat"
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "I don't wanna be a substitute for the smoke you been inhalin'"
Mark: I don't know what the hell kind of bottle has holes along the bottom, but when I'm bobbing my head this much, what do I care? Sporting some of the album's best lines -- see my choice above -- "Not the Doctor" almost feels like a back-porch jam. There's a relaxed drum shuffle and occasional pauses for random high notes, and in some places, it sounds like Alanis is even amusing herself with how many words she can shove into a line. It's yet another song about a fucked-up relationship, yes, but if Alanis can smile about it, then so can I. Rating: 6 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: Mark, I love your "back-porch jam" descriptor; this song definitely has a tossed-off quality that I find appealing. It feels like the neglected deep album cut that Glen Ballard never paid much attention to, but I think the song benefits from it. And in the wake of the ultra-poppy "Ironic," it's refreshing to get a song with so many jagged little edges (no pun intended). Love the way that chorus comes outta nowhere too. Rating: 6 Jagged Little Pills
Average Rating: 6 Jagged Little Pills
TRACK NAME: "Wake Up"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "There's no fundamental excuse for the granted I'm taken for."
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "Get up. Get up. Get up off of it."
Mark: I don't actually like my key lyric for "Wake Up," but it represents the tortured awkwardness of the entire song. It tries so hard to be clever that it sacrifices efficacy, which is also what happens with the singing. Just because you can drop to your lowest register for no reason doesn't mean you should. Meanwhile, the instrumental track in the verses is just boring.
The song isn't a total disaster -- the bridge is pretty, for instance -- but passable blandness just won't do on an album this good. Rating: 2 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: I feel like this song gets about halfway where it wants to go and then kind of gives up. That kind of low slithering-around is intriguing to me, and lyrically the song exhibits a kind of purposeful weariness -- like "I have to explain this all to you again?" -- but the chorus spins its wheels and nothing ever arrives at everything. I wonder if the beefed up "You Oughta Know" (plus the secret song) were tacked on to the end so as to not have the album fizzle out this way. Rating: 3 Jagged Little Pills
Average Raing: 2.5 Jagged Little Pills
TRACK NAME: "You Oughta Know (Radio Remix)"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?"
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "An older version of me / is she perverted like me?"
Mark: Added as a hidden track to the end of the album, this beefed-up mix of "You Oughta Know" is the SHIT. It's almost exactly the same as the album version, except the backing track has more substance (more drums, louder guitars, etc.) and Alanis' vocal sounds louder. That adds an extra dash of intensity to a song that could already power a nuclear power station. Rating: 10 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: On the list of my favorite songs of the 1990s, I would have a very hard time placing anything higher than this exact version of this exact song. The reticence the verses in the album version is gone, replaced by blaring guitars and a raging bottom end that matches Alanis's fury. It's not like the song needs to drown in instrumentation -- any cursory listen to the acoustic version Alanis broke out at the Grammys that year could tell you that. But if you're gonna get loud with it, get fuckin' LOUD with it. Rating: 10 Jagged Little Pills
Average Raing: 10 Jagged Little Pills
[EDIT: That girl up there? With the ill sign language skills and could-give-a-shit pose? She needs to be my friend. -- Joe]
[EDIT: It was really hard to find this version of the song on YouTube, but when i found the sign language version, I knew the search was worth it. Call us, cool girl! -- Mark]
TRACK NAME: "Your House"
MARK'S KEY LYRIC: "Can you forgive me, love, for the salt in your bed?"
JOE'S KEY LYRIC: "Went down to the den / found your CDs / and I played your Joni"
Mark: The first time I heard this hidden track, which follows almost a minute of silence after the "You Oughta Know" remix, I felt so excited! It was like the CD was telling me a secret! That thrill remains to this day, as does the memory of Alanis unexpectedly performing this track at the MTV Video Music Awards, which somehow made it seem real, you know?
I also love the song for being a cappella, not only because it highlights a lovely vocal, but also because it adds even more camp value to a ludicrously overwrought experience. Can't you just imagine a drag queen, make-up smeared, lip-synching along to the anguish when Alanis sneaks into her lover's house and puts on his Joni Mitchell albums. Not the Joni!!! And when she finds a love note from another woman? Girl, she cries so hard that she leaves salt in his bed. Which means she is probably collapsed in the hall because she is so fucking dehydrated. Rating: 4 Jagged Little Pills
Joe: I both love and hate "Your House." In isolation, it's a beautiful, sad song, and the a cappella thing really suits it. The imagery is evocative -- you can smell this guy's shirts, feel the softness of his bed, hear how Joni echoes throughout his almost-empty house. Alanis knows how creepy she's being, but she wants him/us to hear it anyway. All good things. But ... "the salt in your bed" is the grossest description of tears I have ever heard. Also, I always felt like this song fucked up the vibe I had after the "You Oughta Know" reprise at the end of the album. JLP had already gone out on such a killer note; there was no need for another one. It wasn't like when Sarah McLachlan added the acoustic "Possession" onto the end of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. That felt like an extension. This felt like whiplash. Soft, crying whiplash. Rating: 5 Jagged Little Pills
Average Raing: 4.5 Jagged Little Pills
Mark: Revisiting this album has made me happy for many reasons. It provokes so many memories that it basically transports be back to my sophomore and junior years. I remember so many of the words that I get the instant pleasure of singing along. And perhaps most importantly, most of the songs still sound great. More than just an album of its moment, Jagged Little Pill has proven itself to be a timeless batch of songs, united by themes, passions, and killer hooks. Now pardon me while I go listen to "Mary Jane" for the eighth time today.
Joe: I too was transported to my high school year, where I basically had a relationship with this album. I remember, somehow the CD got a deep scratch on it (I still blame my sister for this, though I could never prove it), so halfway through "Ironic," the track would leap to the middle of "Not the Doctor." This was, without hyperbole, the WORST thing to have EVER happened. That's how much I loved this album. Listening today, I'm glad I was a teenager when this came out. I've developed far too many layers of cynicism and experience to be able to latch onto the post-teen frankness Alanis was serving (Angry White Girl Realness?) were this released today. So on top of everything else this album did right, it had great cosmic timing.