Morissette jumps in heart first Review: Her debut album would be a hard act for anyone to follow, but Alanis does it once more, with feeling.

November 03, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Part of the problem with having a massively successful debut is that anything you do for an encore will be seen as a failure by somebody.

If the new songs sound different from the debut, you'll be told you've lost that original spark of genius. If the songs continue in the same vein, then obviously you've run out of ideas. If the album doesn't sell as well as the first, it's because you lost your core audience. And if that first album changed a listener's life, why doesn't this one change it again?

Given how pervasive such pressure is in the music industry, it's a wonder some stars don't just quit after that first big hit. According to interviews, Alanis Morissette considered doing just that. After "Jagged Little Pill," with more than 16 million sold to date, became the biggest-selling U.S. debut in history, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter came "very close" to giving up on music and beginning another career entirely.

But then the songs started coming, and, well

With the release of "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" (Maverick 47094, arriving in stores today), Morissette enters that special circle of hell reserved for young stars and their sophomore albums. She has to cover new ground and yet touch the same bases; shock us, yet still seem familiar; grow, and yet stay the same.

Of course, she doesn't succeed. Who could? But with "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," Morissette comes astonishingly close to meeting the expectations both fans and critics had for the album.

Working once again with Glenn Ballard, who produced and co-wrote "Jagged Little Pill," Morissette pretty much picks up where the last album left off. Its sound is in the same vein as "Pill," but bigger, lusher, gnarlier. Moreover, the songs touch on many of the same topics.

As on "You Oughta Know," Morissette is still fuming at former lovers ("I have as much rage as you have," she sings in "Sympathetic Character"); as with "Ironic," she's still in awe at the capriciousness of fate ("The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down," goes a line in "Thank U"). She remains relentlessly self-critical and attacks her problems with a vitality that belies how powerless she sometimes feels.

In other words, she does a pretty good job of seeming like the same angry young woman who was made the poster girl for female empowerment a few summers ago.

But she also acknowledges that things in her life -- and these songs are almost always about her life -- have changed. "I'd be lying if I said I was completely unscathed," she sings at the beginning of "Can't Not," and while the context suggests that the line concerns a relationship, it's easy to apply it to her situation in general.

Why else would we get such stardom-specific lyrics as those in "UR" ("We're surprised you didn't crack up Lord knows we would have")? Morissette isn't going to try to pretend she's Alanis-everywoman; she knows we know better. So she's smart enough to be up-front about her situation and let us bask in her openness and honesty.

Yet for all her self-consciousness, Morissette doesn't seem to be terribly self-aware. Her songs offer laundry lists of problems, ticking them off in relentless parallelisms: "Are you still mad I kicked you out of bed?/Are you still mad I gave you ultimatums?" go the verses of "Are You Still Mad," while "That I Would Be Good" finds her chanting, mantra-like, "That I would be good even if I did nothing/That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down/That I would be good "

All that repetition does wonders for the musical end of Morissette's writing, anchoring the songs through verbal hooks while her unassumingly virtuosic voice spins variations on the melody. But the accumulation of detail ultimately adds little to our understanding of the situations that inspired these catalogs of misery and grievance.

A shame, because that leaves the listener either empathizing with her plight (Yes! My lover was just like that!), or writing her off as one more whining, self-absorbed alternakid. And given that so many of her songs find her wrestling with problems brought on by involvements with older, powerful men (one lyric makes a telling reference to "all my 40-year-old male friends"), it's hard to imagine that these songs will resonate with average young women the way "You Oughta Know" and "Head Over Feet" did.

Worst of all, by keeping the focus so squarely on her own emotional trauma, Morissette makes it easy to overlook how flat-out spectacular her music is.

It isn't just that she can write a hook as effortlessly intoxicating as the lilting eight-bar chorus to "Thank U." What really makes this album such a pleasure is her complete mastery of melodic structure.

She's great at using contrast to reinvigorate a groove, as when "Can't Not" shifts from its darkly churning chorus pattern to bTC light, Beatlesque bridge. But as such songs as "Couch" and "Unsent" demonstrate, she also understands how to fit the flow of words into a melody without hammering them into regular rhyme and meter.

In a sense, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" is a disappointment not because it doesn't live up to its predecessor, but because it doesn't deliver on Morissette's promise as a singer and songwriter. That's not to say the album isn't good; it is. But it -- and she -- could be a whole lot better.

Alanis Morissette

"Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" (Maverick 47094)

Sun score: ***

Sundial: To hear excerpts from "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6164. For other local numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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