ALANIS MORISSETTE: HAVOC AND BRIGHT LIGHTS (2012)
1) Guardian; 2) Woman Down; 3) 'Til You; 4) Celebrity; 5) Empathy; 6) Lens; 7) Spiral; 8) Numb; 9) Havoc; 10) Win And Win; 11) Receive; 12) Edge Of Evolution; 13*) Big Sur; 14*) Guru; 15*) Permission.
We all usually prefer to snobbishly dismiss sales figures as irrelevant to what we like and what we hate, but «irrelevant» is not quite the same as «meaningless». Look at Alanis and the curve of her US sales, for instance: Jagged Little Pill — over 14 mln. copies sold; Junkie — less than 3 mln.; Under Rug Swept — around 1 mln.; So-Called Chaos — less than 500,000; Flavors Of Entanglement — approximately 230,000; Havoc And Bright Lights — 54,000 copies so far. Look up «exponential behavior» in any mathematical encyclopaedia, and you will probably see a picture of Alanis grinning at you in one of her trademark toothy styles.
What is really funny, though, is that I actually relistened to Jagged Little Pill right before taking a plunge into Alanis' latest «commercial dwarf», just for a quick memory refresh, and God help me, I just can't hear the crucial difference. Yes, a lot of anger, tension, paranoia has been lost, dissipated, scattered over the years, which is only natural after seventeen years. But come now, haven't all those fans from 1995 — people for whom Jagged Little Pill mattered so much, all these 14 million Americans and 20 more million people worldwide? — haven't they, too, grown older, so that they could follow their teenage idol through all of her phases and stages, breaking down when she breaks down, straightening up when she straightens up? What's up with loyalty and fidelity these days, anyway?
Not only that, but Havoc And Bright Lights mostly received disparaging critical reviews — seems even worse than Flavors Of Entanglement — with people complaining about almost everything. Too hookless, too happy, too overproduced, too archaic, too boring, something that I just don't get — it's as if «she used to be fine and now she sucks», when in reality there has never been any insurmountable gap between any of her albums. Screw the whole Zeitgeist thing: Alanis is not a very good artist, but she is an artist, want it or not, not just some helpless carrier of the supernatural spirit of 1995, randomly selected in some heavenly lottery.
And there are some good songs on this album, no more and no less than on the previous one. To be honest, the production does not bother me at all. She retains her producer from Flavors (Guy Sigsworth), but they go a little bit easier on the electronics and a little heavier on the guitars this time, and although the album doth suffer from overcompression, the sonic textures are at least varied — some of the arrangements lean towards traditional grungy alt-rock, some have ringing folk-rock patterns, some are electronically processed, some are acoustic, basically, I just don't mind: in any case, the instrumental backdrops, as usual, only serve as backgrounds for Alanis' vocal hooks, and these particular ones, at the very least, aren't annoying.
And what about these hooks? Well, I don't see why long-time fans of Alanis should turn away from them. Something like ʽGuardianʼ is very much Alanis — quiet soulful beginning, exploding into loud ecstasy as the chorus is being hammered into your brain, only this time, it is a little confusing because there is no hateful madness attached: now, screaming "I'll be your keeper for life as your guardian", she is just giving a lively oath of faith, not cursing the hell out of us all. Yes, this might disappoint those who'd rather see her rail and rant. But it's a good chorus all the same, or maybe I'm just growing old.
In fact, the tendency seems to be this: the more she tries to whip herself up into an aggressive posture, the more embarrassing it looks, and vice versa. ʽWoman Downʼ positions itself as a feminist anthem, but not only does it have some of the silliest «feminist» lyrics ever committed to tape by, er, a formerly major artist ("calling all woman haters, we've lowered the bar on the behavior that we will take" — what's that supposed to mean?), it is also set to an equally silly, jumpy pattern punctuated by merry synth whoops, in a befuddling nod to those early dance pop days when "I wanna feel your love!" was about as deep as this lady would go. Lesson not learned: you don't combine serious (if clumsily stated) messaging with this kind of music.
Another flat pancake is ʽCelebrityʼ, where the lyrics are a bit more coherent and, perhaps, could even — in theory — touch the senses of all the "tattooed sexy dancing monkeys" to whom it is addressed, but the spark is just not there: try as she might, she cannot reach the proper level of hatred or derision for all the "wheels, heels and vintage Gucci"... which might, after all, have something to do with the fact that the lady is not above a vintage Gucci herself (just google «Alanis Morrissette and Gucci» and look at all the nice, fine images). Hmm, hmm.
Anyway, cut to the chase: when she is being who she is on this record — a settled down family lady with a small kid and a happy home in Los Angeles — there are no big problems. ʽTil Youʼ is an old-school adult contemporary ballad with pretty voice modulation, soulfulness, and humility; it had me even thinking of late-period ABBA for a moment out there, which may not be a coincidence because, for instance, the double-tracked vocals on the chorus of ʽLensʼ also sound suspiciously Swedish in origin. ʽSpiralʼ is speedy, optimistic and catchy, even if its ringing guitars and swirling synths sort of cancel out each other in an overcompression bout — but after a couple of listens, the chorus gets head-stuck anyway.
And on and on and on, these songs are surprisingly even — there are very few of her «Eastern Darkness» trademarks (although ʽNumbʼ, with some of that modality and an atmospheric violin part to boot, is at least as good as anything on Junkie), for the most part it's this very even, not too pretentious semi-alt-, semi-folk-pop with stable emotions, credible sentimentality and occasional hooks. Not too clever — remember who we are dealing with — not too dumb. Little to love, but absolutely nothing to hate. Plus, her voice seems to be improving in clarity and range as the years go by — some of the notes hit on ʽTil Youʼ are downright gorgeous.
After some consideration, I go with a thumbs up, as I'd go with any not-untalented person being relatively honest with herself and her listeners (we'll agree to overlook the Gucci fiasco for once). Essentially, these days Alanis Morissette just sounds more basically human, so who the heck cares about a stale old Zeitgeist from almost two decades ago, anyway? Good for you, 54,000 loyal fans who bought this album — it is hardly likely that I will ever want to revisit it, but I certainly don't regret the time spent on trying to understand why I never got around to hating it, or to getting bored out of my skull with it.
Check "Havoc And Bright Lights" (MP3) on Amazon