Morissette matures past the fury

Review: The bitter sound of rock's angry young woman has mellowed into music that emphasizes lyrics over rage.

November 23, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Alanis Morissette first leapt into the limelight, back in 1995, the word most often associated with her work was "angry."

Thanks largely to the emotional resonance teen-age girls found in the vengeful intensity of "You Oughta Know," Morissette's breakthrough single, the singer was hailed as a new kind of feminist hero, an angry young woman who stood as the distaff equivalent to alt-rock's tortured young men. Never mind that many of the songs on "Jagged Little Pill," her debut album, didn't quite fit this pigeonhole; as far as the pundits were concerned, Morissette's aesthetic could be boiled down to "you live, you learn/you rage, you burn."

Morissette, however, would not be so easily categorized. "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," released just over a year ago, supplanted her first album's fury with spirituality and self-reflection. Now, "MTV Unplugged" (Maverick 47589, arriving in stores today) goes a step further and recasts the wrath of those early songs as wisdom and transcendence.

Not for nothing does the album open with the low-key jauntiness of "You Learn." As her band eases into an almost jazzy shuffle, Morissette advises, "I recommend getting your heart trampled on/To anyone."

Where once the lyric seemed infused with the bitterness of hard-won experience Morissette now presents the song as a saga of goodness and growth. It's almost as if she believes that the only way we can become better is by occasionally doing stupid things, and that she who dares most, gains most.

Or, to quote the second verse: "I recommend biting off more than you can chew/To anyone."

"MTV Unplugged" itself doesn't find Morissette biting off much in the way of new material. Although three of the album's dozen titles are making their first appearance on CD, none are exactly new. The moody, discursive "No Pressure Over Cappuccino" made its first appearance in Morissette's repertoire during the "Jagged Little Pill" tour, while both "Princes Familiar" and "These R the Thoughts" were written for (though not included on) "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie."

Then again, this album seems less about breaking new ground than shattering old stereotypes. After a year on the road, touring behind the "Infatuation Junkie" album, Morissette has settled into a comfortable, confident groove, offering a stage presence as powerful as on her first tour, yet operating on an entirely different wavelength.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the hits. "Ironic," reset in an easy, mostly acoustic arrangement that emphasizes not the momentum of the melody but the space between notes, has become a cosmic joke that has even Morissette chuckling to herself, while "Head Over Feet" undercuts its own self-importance with a delightfully incompetent harmonica solo.

Even the most serious songs have been given a new take. Although "You Oughta Know" is still shot-through with rage and revenge, Morissette doesn't burn so much as smolder, switching the focus from the protagonist's feelings to the misdeeds of her former lover. By scaling the arrangement down and pulling the energy back, Morissette lets us hear the song, not the fury, and that makes a world of difference.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that she prefaces "You Oughta Know" with a cover of the old Police song, "King of Pain." Perhaps because she herself has been portrayed as a Queen of Pain, Morissette sees through to the self-mockery at the song's core and presents it with wry humor that respects the melody while asking us to think about the lyrics.

It's entirely typical of what Morissette does on her "MTV Unplugged" and one more reason for us to reconsider our sense of the singer.

Alanis Morissette

What: "MTV Unplugged"

Label: Maverick

Sun score: * * *

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