Havoc and Bright Lights
In 1995, Canadian Alanis Morissette lobbed her third album, Jagged Little Pill, into the global culture. It landed with the force of a concussion grenade. Her first (of the album's six) Top 40 hits, "You Oughta Know" still feels shockingly raw today, as Alanis sets off a ferocious f-bomb, asks if an ex's new girlfriend is "perverted like me," then alludes to performing oral sex in a theater.
There were some sweet moments on Pill, such as the tender "Head Over Feet." But that's not the song people think of first when recalling Alanis' early years. Suffice it to say that no one at the time would have voted Miss Morissette "Most Likely to Grow Up, Get Married, Have a Baby and Live Happily Ever After."
And yet … that's what seems to be happening with Alanis seventeen years later. Oh, the "happily ever after part" may be a bit of a stretch, as angst and Alanis will always go hand and hand. But the singer's melodramatic moments these days have more to do with balancing the demands of motherhood and marriage than rehashing the wrongs done to her in damaging, dysfunctional, sexual relationships.
"Guardian" gives credit to someone, likely husband and rapper Mario "MC Souleye" Treadway, for the ways he's served her: "You, you who has smiled when you're in pain/ … No more holding still in the hailstorm." The song promises, either to him, or perhaps Alanis' son, Ever Imre Morissette-Treadway, "I'll be your keeper for life as your guardian/I'll be your warrior of care, your first warden/I'll be your angel on call, I'll be on demand/The greatest honor of all, as your guardian." Likewise, "Empathy" thanks Treadway for helping Alanis through insecure moments: "Thank you for seeing me/I feel so less lonely/ … I'm healed by your empathy." "Spiral" covers similar territory as Alanis sings, "Once again I'm in my shame spiral/I'm glad that you've weighed in."
"Receive" begs for a bit of a (healthy) break from the unceasing responsibilities of parenthood. "I wake up and first things first: I'm of service/ … I give hard and serve hard and now I, I need a break/ … Now it's time to regenerate." On "Havoc," Alanis confesses that she's struggling with old temptations ("I'm slipping again/I'm up to old tricks, off my wagon"), but she realizes forgiveness, understanding and confession play important roles in helping her start over again ("If forgiveness is understanding/Then I offer mea culpa for the millionth time").
"Woman Down" chronicles a generational cycle of abuse that a man has witnessed, one that involved first his mother, then his sister, then a lover and, finally, his daughter. Alanis says that the latter isn't willing to submit to the emotional abuse women in generations past quietly endured: "Next woman down is your daughter/A stranger to being debased/She has a new lease and limit/On the abuse she'll tolerate."
Skewering our culture's addiction to fame, "Celebrity" is written from the perspective of a woman willing to trade anything for notoriety, including her health and identity: "Give me celebrity/ … Tell me who I have to be/Starving to be famous/ … I'll cut my weight in two if you'll have me." The song also talks about female celebs' willingness to offer themselves sexually in exchange for fame: "I am a tattooed sexy dancing monkey/Just aloof enough to get you to want me/Hoping my persona ingratiates me." "Win & Win" deals with the importance of equality, not stultifying arrogance or demeaning insecurity, in our relationships: "We are equal to each other/ … We are partner, sister, brother." "'Til You" sees past romantic disappointments as preparatory for a more healthy and fulfilling relationship now.
"Lens" navigates different spiritual convictions in the context of a marriage. "We both live for 'truth'/But then how are we to define something so objective/Living under the same roof?" we hear. "Your approach seen as better than mine/Though it's working for you/All I feel is disconnection/So now it's your, your religion against my, my religion." Alanis never spells out how their religious convictions are different, and it's a tricky "unequally yoked" subject, to be sure. But she ends with a laudable plea for love and empathy: "I'd like to know what we'd see through the lens of love."
On "Numb," Alanis sings obliquely about how feeling "smothered and encumbered and defeated" has led her back to some unnamed addictive "drug": "Here comes a feeling/I run from the feeling/And reach for the drug/ … I'd rather be flying/And comfortably numb." That said, Alanis rightly realizes her choice is self-destructive, and that she needs help: "I am lonely, I feel hungry and unloved/I feel angry, I am livid, need a hug." A subtle allusion to past drug use turns up on "Edge of Evolution" as well, where we hear, "I have had my glimpses/With and without substances/I have had awakenings/Not abiding for the most part."
Historically, Alanis Morissette's compelling—but often problematic—lyrics have always been grounded in her keen psychological insights. Whether happy or sad, ragingly angry or metaphysically calm, her body of work since 1995 has explored all manner of subjects with confessional clarity.
With Havoc and Bright Lights, she adds marriage and motherhood to the mix. Unlike many maturing artists whose perspective seems stuck in perpetual adolescence (read: Green Day), Alanis isn't afraid to sing about where she's really at in life and the challenges she's truly facing, from learning to accept her husband's love in moments of crippling shame to the nonstop stress of raising an infant.
Subjects like these rarely pop up in pop music. After all, the mundane travails of motherhood (it's not hard to picture Alanis shuttling kiddos to soccer practice in a minivan) are hardly the stuff of rebellious rock 'n' roll. But Alanis' insistence on autobiographical authenticity sets her apart from so much of the superficial stuff floating through the airwaves these days.
Against all odds, perhaps, Alanis is growing up. And that's prompted her to make an album for grown-ups—not because it has "adult" content, but because it deals with the adult journey.