In Brief: Flawed, but slightly better than So-Called Chaos. It’s far more reflective than angry, so those who expect another Jagged Little Pill can just keep waiting.
People seem to fall into three camps when it comes to their opinion of Alanis Morissette. There are those who dislike her greatly because they think she’s a screechy, whiny, man-hater. There are those who liked her for exactly those reasons in the days of Jagged Little Pill, but who think she’s become largely sedate and irrelevant since then. And then there are the enduring fans who actually find her potpourri of journal entries turned into songs to be somewhat fascinating. I’ve never actually met anyone in the third group in person, but I assume they must exist, because Alanis keeps out putting records for somebody’s enjoyment, and it ain’t the general public. I mean, pretty much everything she’s done has fallen within the category of pop/rock genre-wise, so it’s not like her albums haven’t had their fair share of potential hit singles. But at times, there seems to be an uneasy tension between “here’s a really addictive melody and a snappy programmed beat to go along with it” and “here’s an observation from the deep, dark recesses of my soul” that seems to hold her at bay as far as more universal appeal is concerned. That’s simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.
For those who fell into either of the first two camps (the haters and the former fans), four years likely wasn’t a long enough break between Alanis’s last bout of psychoanalysis, 2004’s So-Called Chaos, and her return after a fairly lengthy hiatus, 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement. Those of us who actually kind of liked her probably wondered if she had begun to run out of creative steam, her albums consistently getting shorter since the lopsided monolith that was Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. And sure, we had a greatest hits collection and an acoustic redux of Jagged Little Pill in between to tide us over, but the only new recording of any prominence that came from her during this long break was her ironic (and I mean actually ironic, unlike the Alanis song of the same name) cover of the Black Eyed Peas‘ “My Humps”, which made the rounds on YouTube as an April Fools’ Joke. This, to me, was kind of like those Digital Shorts on Saturday Night Live that become big hits on the Internet even though most of their live comedy sketch material seems to be widely regarded as much lower quality than it used to be. To put it more succinctly, Alanis needed a comeback that wasn’t just a fluke.
And I think she still needs it, quite frankly, because Flavors of Entanglement ain’t it. It’s certainly an attempt at a comeback – not just a return to her old stomping grounds, but a brave attempt at rebranding her image with a new musical style, somewhat like Madonna circa Ray of Light. Her desire was to make a fun, “dance-your-face-off” sort of record, so she teamed up with producer Guy Sigsworth, who has apparently worked with everyone from Bjork to Britney Spears and who has a bit of a penchant for electronic soundscapes. The album was delayed again and again, and in the interim, a once-happily engaged Alanis suffered personal loss when her relationship with actor Ryan Renolds went south. This may have been the intervening event that changed the overall tone and mood of Flavors. Because it’s a record that is sonically interesting in several places, but that for the most part, I wouldn’t recommend dancing your face or even any of your eyelashes off to it. At times it’s pretty similar to the state of Top 40 radio circa 1999 or 2000 – the era in which Alanis imitators seemed to be in their heyday, keeping the whine but toning down the harsher tones of the Jagged Little Pill style in favor of more innocuous pop/rock arrangements. At other times, it’s in an idiosyncratic headspace all its own.
What jars us back to reality are the almost uniformly downtrodden stories of heartbreak and self-doubt that flow from Alanis’s pen. This isn’t a bad thing – it became a bit hard to swallow when a number of giddy love songs began to worm their way into So-Called Chaos, even though I was happy for Alanis on a personal level. It’s just one of those things where the tortured artist can often come up with something more interesting than the artist at peace. You don’t want tragedy to happen to these people, but if it does, you want them to milk it for whatever it’s worth in their songwriting. A few anomalies aside, Flavors of Entanglement is a breakup album. There’s no getting around it.
While a string of songs that analyze the dissolution of a relationship and its lonely aftermath will undoubtedly be depressing for a lot of people, I like that Alanis turns most of the analysis in on herself, instead of projecting it outwards as vitriol towards the dude who (apparently) dumped her. So instead of “This hurts like hell and you suck for doing this to me”, we get “This hurts like hell and I’m gonna learn something from it.” That sort of attitude is where the best breakup songs are born – sometimes you just need to get the frustration out of your system, and Alanis certainly does that on a few tracks (once or twice with a sharp enough tongue to almost rival the sour attitude of JLP), but ultimately you have to get a handle on what you can change (i.e. you) and what you can’t (i.e. the other person). I’ve been through this sort of thing. I kind of get how it works, and in that sense, this album is a pretty good documentation of the trip back to finding self-worth. At the same time, it’s so bogged down with the specifics and her enduring penchant for oddball phrasing and so forth that these songs don’t really set themselves to be personal anthems to get you through your own grieving process. I generally prefer for songwriters to be specific rather than vague, but there’s something to be said for the ability to extrapolate from your own personal minutiae to what this means for your fellow human being who is listening in. That’s the difference between feeling like Alanis is a friend helping you along a personal journey, and just feeling like you’ve stumbled across her diary and now having to awkwardly admit to her that you totally read every page of it. That, and a few bumps in the road where the music does a total 180 on us, are what keep Flavors of Entanglement from rising too far above an “average” rating in my book.
1. Citizen of the Planet
And so, the next few years are blurry
The next decade’s a flurry of smells and tastes unknown
Threads sewn straight through this fabric
Through fields of every color, one culture to another…
If you’re getting deja vu when you listen to this exotic little tale of a single human being as a microcosm of humanity itself, that’s likely because you’ve heard Alanis use the musical template for it before – the vaguely Eastern feeling complete with tabla and a snarling electric guitar attack during the chorus is reminiscent of both “Still” (the song Alanis did for Dogma) and the title track from So-Called Chaos. This isn’t particularly a bad thing – it’s an effective enough sound and it gives the song an epic sense of scope. But if Alanis is trying to use the example of one of us to describe all of us, she’s getting too bogged down in the specifics for the message to really hit home. Little details such as “My President is Guan Yin” and “From French and Hungarian snow” gives hints that Alanis is describing herself, but I’m not sure what the point of all of this detail gathering is. Sure, it’s the introduction to a very personal record, but it’s a record about relationships, not the human condition or whatever sort of universal principle she’s attempting to exalt here.
Look at us form our cliques in our sandbox
Look at us being cruel kids with both our hearts blocked
Look at us turn away from all the rough spots
Look at dictatorship on my own block…
Ms. Morissette shows us her perceptive side here, with a song about the little wars that go on in our own households, the damage that they do, and our feeble attempts to put Band-Aids on the wounds. I’m sure that this has been explored before, but this one’s definitely a case where her gift for wordplay outshines your typical lyrical exploration of the classic love/hate relationship. The beat has an unabashed “early 90’s” sort of thing going on, and the guitar solo reminds me of something you’d hear from one of the female singer/songwriter types who rose to popularity after Alanis did in the late 90’s (for some reason, Natalie Imbruglia‘s “Torn” comes to mind, but that might just be me). It’s effective. The melody is punchy, the chorus is singable despite the odd timing and enunciation, and the thoughts expressed are at once specific and universal. There couldn’t have been a better choice for the first radio single (though I don’t think it did terribly well – mainstream radio seems to be more or less over Alanis in this day and age).
Talking with you’s like talking to a sieve that can’t hear me
You fight me tooth and nail to disavow what’s happening
Your resistance to a mirror, I feel screaming from your body
One day I’ll introduce myself, and you’ll see you’ve not yet met me…
Whoa, did we just flash back to the days of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie? This song’s dissonant, garbled, electronic verses hearken back to some of that album’s difficult moments, though where a song from SFIJ might lead to rewarding observations amid all of the obscure references and anti-melodic droning, this one can’t make up it’s mind whether it wants to be a seething fit of rage a la “You Oughta Know” or a strobe-lit dance party a la the radio mix of “So Pure”. When Alanis snarls at the man who continually interrupts and misunderstands her, “I don’t know who you’re talking to with such f*cking disrespect”, this is the first time I’ve heard her drop the old f-bomb since that breakthrough hit of hers (or its more recent acoustic incarnation, I guess), and then she continues her trend of either referring to fecal matter or the orifice that it comes from at least once per album when she insists, “This sh*t’s making me crazy”. (Which is funny, because Gwen Stefani thinks that this sh*t is bananas. You two would get along!) Save for some little hints of electric guitar, this song is all canned dance beats and weird knob twisting, which robs the otherwise catchy chorus of its punch. I get what she’s going for – she can’t exist in a relationship where the other person takes such a distorted view of reality and twists everything she says back around on her. It’ll drive her insane. It’s a nice attempt, but such direct, blunt language doesn’t really belong in the same lyrical space as some of her odd analogies and her habit of rearranging the grammar of a sentence to make it sound more poetic. This would be the one skippable track on the record due to these glaring flaws.
4. Versions of Violence
Explaining and controlling
Judging, opining, and meddling…
We go from one fuzzed-out electronic song to another, but this one gets it right where “Straitjacket” got nearly everything wrong. There’s a bottom end to this one – a sick, synthetic bassline and a slamming beat that reverberate through it, making Alanis’s creepy chant that much more haunting, as she goes through her personal list of subtle ways that people manipulate and hurt each other. Though her phrasing might be a little overwrought or her observations a bit melodramatic in places (is it really as abusive to try to explain or express an opinion of another person’s behavior as it is to just flat out punch the person?), this one wins the day because Alanis has figured out how to be weird and yet deliver a massive acidic hook at the same time. I could do without the abrupt ending,but then I guess the song is intended to be harsh and interrupt the flow of things.
5. Not As We
Gun-shy and shivering
Timid, without a hand
Feign brave, with steel intent
Little and hardly here…
I have a bit of a conflict regarding this raw, naked piano ballad. It is a thing of beauty, perhaps the most compelling and captivating song that Alanis has written in a very long time. It’s the one track on the album that, beyond all considerations of what’s catchy or what would make a good single, should go down as the one undisputed classic on this strange mutant of an album. It is to Alanis what “Foolish Games” is to Jewel. I love it that much. The problem? It doesn’t even pretend to fit into its surroundings. The lyrics are fine (aside from a few small quibbles over the awkward phrasing of a line like “This time I as I and not as we” – which I understand but which just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite right) – they equate to a heavy sigh uttered after you’ve finally given in to a good, long cry over a lost love that you will never get back, and then lifted your head and said, “Alright, this is the first day of getting over it and moving on.” It expresses great fear and trepidation about this process of starting over, but at the same time great hope of regaining a sense of self-worth without a significant other needing to be there to provide it. But musically, it doesn’t even pretend to flow well with the songs preceding and following it. It stands alone as if dropped in from another universe, an aborted album created with another producer who had a completely different vision. I love the song dearly, but each time I hear it on the album, I find myself longing to give it a better home.
6. In Praise of the Vulnerable Man
You, with your eyes, mix strength with abandon
You, with your new kind of heroism
And I bow, and I bow down to you
To the grace that it takes to melt on through…
As much as I want folks to grow up and move on and get past the fact that Alanis isn’t all about man-hating rage, I do have to admit that it gives me pause to suddenly hear her in gushy mode, literally singing the praises of her ideal mate. Hey, it’s OK to dream. Just as in “21 Things I Want in a Lover” (which was a much better song because it at least had some musical bite), I’m fascinated by the little details that Alanis uses to describe the kind of guy who would make her swoon. It’s certainly a heck of a lot better phrased here that it was in the downright embarassing “Knees of My Bees”. But the extremely laid-back beat and the cheesy programmed strings (which don’t even try to pretend they’re not canned) don’t do this romantic ride into the sunset any favors. Plus, it’s just wrong here, positioned between gut-wrenching breakup song number umpteen, and introspective breakup song number eleventy.
I’ve never let my grasp soften fingers like this
I’ve never been careless, otherless, like autonomy’s twin…
Here’s where the empowerment manages to emerge from the lack of entanglement. Hardcore feminists who almost lost their lunch during the previous song, take heart! Alnis dedicates this reflective tune – not fast, not slow, but just sort of freely flowing along on a skittering electronic beat – to a period of her life considered a “dead zone” for relationships. She’s given them up. She’s on a boyfriend diet, with the apparent intent being to lose some baggage and not drag it into some other guy’s life. This is admirable, and I’d love the song if it weren’t so bogged down by her usual linguistic baggage. Get a load of this chorus: “I declare a moratorium on things relationship”… not bad… “I declare a respite from the toils of liaison”… whoa, that’s a mouthful… “I do need a breather from the flavors of entanglement”… alright, there’s your convoluted reference to the album title, they all show up in songs like these… “I declare a full time out from all things commitment”. Ah-OOH-ga! Having trouble meeting your syllable quota there, Ms. Morissette? I like what you’re trying to say, and it’s a snappy enough little song, but sheesh, try letting a sentence flow naturally for a change.
I miss your smell and your style, and your pure abiding way
Miss your approach to life and your body in my bed
Miss your take on anything, and the music you would play
Miss cracking up and wrestling, and our debriefs at end of day…
You know how it goes when you break up with someone who has been integral to your life for sooooo long that you just can’t imagine life without them? This gut-wrenching song explores what that’s like by describing life with that person and simply saying, “These are the things that I miss”. And it’s not for the faint of heart. She’s in full throttle depression mode as she pines, “These are the days of raw despondence. I never dreamed I would have to lay down my torch for you like this.” And I’m not pointing that out to make fun of it. I’m 100% convinced and I feel some sense of empathy, having been in that completely broken place once myself. In that sense, I relate. But that ability to relate only goes so far, because I think this song crosses a boundary between being personal enough to be unique, and being so personal that it makes the rest of us say, “Wait, I wasn’t in love with someone who brought home documentaries for me to watch and who walked with a stick-tied handkerchief. I didn’t date Ryan Renolds!” None of these details feel so private as to be invasive, and for all I know some of them could be made up, or they could be an amalgam of previous relationships. But there comes a point where I think we get that she’s listing off every little thing that reminds her of the guy, and we need to get past that and explore more of what this “laying down the torch” experience is like in the here and now.
9. Giggling Again For No Reason
I am sitting at the set of Cali sun
We’ve gotten quiet for its last precious seconds
I can feel the salt of the sea on my skin
And we still hear the echoes of abandon…
While I criticized the previous “happy song” for its awkward placement on the album, this is the point where I think we all could use a little levity. Alanis is wise to give us that here. In the hands of many other artists, this one would just be a simple “road song” – it’s fun, it’s upbeat, and it’s got a candy-coated dance beat that makes it just about the girliest thing Alanis has ever done, but it also shows a lot of wisdom. This is why the song appeals to me even though I’d probably never loudly proclaim “This is my jam!” upon hearing it or anything. Amidst the giddy laughter and the elated sense of freedom found in a solitary trip up Pacific Coast Highway, there’s a hint of something deeper – a time to establish personal boundaries, to say, “I need this for the sake of my own healing, and the rest of the world can wait”. I think it’s also significant that Alanis names “Big Sur getaways” as one of the things she misses in the previous song, and then implies (at least, to those of us who know our California geography) that she’s headed right into the heart of a place that reminds her of her old flame. The implication is that new memories will be made there, that she doesn’t have to give up a place that was special to her just because of the baggage attached. (If you’ve ever driven through Big Sur, it’s a bit of a commitment too. Three hours of hairpin turns and dizzyingly high sea cliffs and only one road in and out. You don’t end up there accidentally.)
I am someone easy to leave, even easier to forget
A voice, if inaccurate
Again, I’m the one they all run from, diatribes of clouded sun
Someone help me find the pause button…
It can be jarring to hear Alanis sing a lot of negative things about herself, or say she’s OK with things that she’s really not, without the full context to make you understand that these observations are sarcastic or otherwise untrue. For this reason, I had difficulty with the songs “Doth I Protest Too Much” and “Spinless” on So-Called Chaos. I understood the meaning, but only because of outside knowledge that there was no way Alanis would ever say these things and truly mean them. Here in this sad little trance of a song, the context is a little more clear, as she explores all of the critical thoughts that loop around inside of her head, things other people have told her that have hurt her feelings and stuck with her over the years, stating them as if she believes them during each verse, but indicating in the chorus that these thoughts wreak havoc on her sense of self-worth. Maybe this all sounds a little touchy-feely, but it’s kind of one of those things that needs to be said. I know too many women who can’t take a compliment due to years of believing that either they’re not attractive, or that to admit you are attractive is asking for trouble. It’s not just a woman thing, but I think that our society gives women an especially hard time as far as self-esteem and the things that are implied to give them worth are concerned. The music’s a bit cluttered and ponderous, so the song doesn’t quite hit with the impact that it really should. But at the very least, these lyrics should be read and taken as a word of caution: Don’t believe this crap about yourself!
One day, my mind will retreat, and I’ll know God
And I’ll be constantly one with her, night, dusk and day
One day I’ll be secure
Like the women I see on their 30th anniversaries…
To finish off the album, Alanis goes into optimistic “Utopia” mode with more of a bright, acoustic feel, detailing the dreams that will come true for her “one day” and dispelling the lies expressed in the previous song by saying she’s gonna find herself a man who values her for more than just her abilities, or her celebrity, or the current amount of capital she has as a recording artist, or whatever. See, all of that time spent bleeding out your thoughts onto a diary page can sometimes lead to healthy conclusions after all! But once again, we get mired in specifics that are a little too detailed to be terribly relateable, particularly when she mentions wanting to be “Like the women I see on their 30th anniversaries”. Really? Do you see that many? Why that number specifically? Sorry, I guess I take these things too literally. It’s good to hear her saying that she finds worth even in the process, that the status of being “forever incomplete” can come with its own rapture and epiphany. That’s another wise observation. This may not be a show-stopping album closer – it feels more like a “by the way” sort of thought that was quickly tacked on. But I’m glad that she was able to end the album on an up note (complete with one final, resolute upstroke on the guitar) without it sounding forced.
You know, I think I’ve warmed up to this album a bit more as I’ve reviewed it. I was gonna go with three stars and I think she’s just barely managed to eke out that fourth star. (If that last song means anything to the one who wrote it, my opinion of her work isn’t how she measures herself anyway. So it may be a moot point, but then again, I gotta keep you, the consumer, in mind.) Flavors of Entanglement is far from complete, and it isn’t her best work although I think it makes a little more of a unique and cohesive statement than the scatterbrained So-Called Chaos. Alanis has the arsenal of songs within her to make a really consistent album, but despite her trend of preferring brevity to long-windedness from Under Rug Swept onward, she still seems to have trouble weeding out the tangents. So we’ll see how it goes for her between now and about 2011.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Citizen of the Planet $1
Versions of Violence $2
Not As We $1.50
In Praise of the Vulnerable Man $1
Giggling Again For No Reason $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.