25th Anniversary: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ — A New Perspective

jagged

Like a lot of older Millennials, I can remember the first time I heard Alanis Morissette. I was in eighth grade, and her debut music video in the U.S., “You Oughta Know”, began making the rounds on TV. I didn’t think much of it, but her second single, “Hand in My Pocket”, arrived months later and I became hooked like the 33 million fans worldwide who’d buy her blockbuster album, “Jagged Little Pill”, in 1995 onwards.

It wasn’t just that I was a fan; she literally introduced me to music—and at that pivotal age, it was momentous. Like many teenagers, my musical taste would be crucial in informing my identity. Aided by Alanis’ music, I discovered the genre she was ostensibly part of—alternative rock—and I was in love.

I remained a fan of Alanis in the subsequent years, still fondly playing her first and second albums regularly, well into my thirties. A quarter of a century later, however, I unexpectedly found myself coming full circle to the minority of outliers whom I recalled initially rebuked the phenomenon of her music, perplexingly.

Something had shifted my sensibilities. Now the instrumentation, style, and concept of her music simply struck me as… inauthentic. They seemed preconceived, affected, and a little silly. It wasn’t that there wasn’t true talent involved; it’s that the music was less about art than it was about entertainment. On that level, yes: the music was certainly catchy—enough for me to listen repeatedly for decades. I would never tire of her music in some sense, but I began to realize: maybe she wasn’t such an authentic artist, but again: just an entertainer with a phenomenal gimmick.

These were the accusations from her critics, twenty-five years ago upon the release of “Jagged Little Pill”. They had baffled me then, in their reservations against a surely indelible and spectacular artist—but now I understood where they were coming from.

I remember hearing people flatly say her music was “whiny” and an outlet for complaining—rather than profound and cathartic, as millions of fans attested. Her most famous critics declared her hackneyed and contrived; I could hear it in the instrumentation now—often, it sounded more like an imitation of rock music than actual  rock music, if that makes sense. It was too slick and mannered for its own good. A sophisticated ear is a tall order for a fourteen year old; what was my excuse for the last twenty years? Maybe when I listened to her music between then and now, it was clouded by my own nostalgic attachment to it.

Morissette’s credibility was always suspect from the start: prior to “Jagged Little Pill”, she’d released two strictly dance-pop albums that were indicative of their time: the early 1990s. Her about-face with “Pill” as an alternative rock singer was suspiciously convenient, a few years later at the peak of the grunge phenomenon. That she collaborated with veteran music producer Glen Ballard—who was accomplished but best known for polished pop rather than rock music—only perpetuated doubts of Alanis’ “rock” status. Honestly, this theoretical calculation on her part wouldn’t have bugged me, except that she didn’t pull it off artistically after all.

It’s telling that Morissette never repeated her success with “Pill”—commercially or artistically, ever again. Not that an artist should replicate their style or subject repeatedly, but she never attained the same relevance even on a strictly esoteric or artistic level. Her follow-up album came the closest, but even now it suffers from a similar quality as its behemoth predecessor: inhabiting a dubious sonic limbo between art and entertainment. In fact, all of her subsequent albums shared this trait. That was no accident.

It’s no wonder that no matter how beloved and entrenched “Jagged Little Pill” is in popular culture, it rarely if ever landed on any of those contentious, retrospective “Best of” lists from presumably serious music critics. Those dissertations always lent themselves to debate, which is why their unanimous omission of this album is all the more telling: and rarely debated!

Don’t get me wrong—I still think Alanis Morissette’s music has merit, but her music is tantamount to a blockbuster movie: it may become a beloved fixture in popular culture, but it’s not necessarily the finest example of its medium. In many ways, it’s no less valuable for bearing this quality, and there’s no shame in liking it. I will always have a place in my heart for her brand of music, just like I do with other fun pop music, blockbuster films, or cheesy TV shows. They all serve a purpose. Twenty-five years later, I may have changed, but I can still laud this landmark album for its most consistent quality: a pivotal moment in pop culture—for me, and the millions of fans that made it one of the biggest albums of all time.

Album Review: Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ is One-of-a-Kind Art Rock

Radiohead

The album cover art for Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool is a fitting metaphor for the music within: a corrosive, abstract form that defies definition. It is the venerable band’s most oblique and sonically dense record, from their catalog that has consistently defied musical categorization.

It’s easy to get lost in the theorizing of the mystique and motives of such an artistically lauded band instead of focusing on the work that propelled them into such a position in the first place. Their new album stands on its own as a musical work of art, and an admirable extension to their ambitions and abilities as musicians, writers, and artists that have been in the public domain for a quarter of a century now.

The first response I had to the album was not immediate devotion as a fan, but a caveat: it was not outwardly accessible, even for a band that never aimed for such a feat. For a fan, it threw me.

Listened to on a cursory level, the eleven-song cycle could be condensed to obtuse whispers, hushed strings, and formless melodies—all wind and sail, with no immediate soul or beat to anchor one’s mind to. Or so I thought.

Like some records we’ve doubtless encountered, I had to be in the right headspace to receive it. And like the muse behind art, there is no formula for discovering the beauty behind art. It simply arrives on its own.

When it occurred, I found myself intoxicated with ineffable fascination at the album’s sonic landscape. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was the prime force behind the songs’ use of haunting choruses and emotive strings, imbuing the album with a strange and indescribable beauty that singled it out from any other albums I’ve ever listened to in the rock genre.

Whether it was merely artifice or thematic ingenuity, I found myself quietly stunned and enraptured, like a zealot hearing his gospel at church. If music stirs you instinctually or cerebrally or both, it’s done its job.

The opening track and first single, “Burn the Witch” is the most conventionally structured song in the album. Buoyed by a fast, frightening string section straight out of an arty horror film, it’s a tense and urgent tune that gives way to a far more oblong musical journey afterwards.

“Daydreaming” follows—a languid, sleepy meditation that lead singer Thom Yorke has essentially been writing since OK Computer in 1997. It’s a summation of all the fears, dreads, and wonders the band persistently chases throughout their discography, providing new insights each time with each new phase they enter.

“Decks Dark” perhaps best encapsulates the album’s musical identity: an anomalous hybrid of harrowing archaic choir, weaving strings, Yorke’s croon, and ebullient keyboards. Even if the voice and lyrics aren’t articulate, the emotion is there—it’s all in the sound.

Another track, “The Numbers”, is a heightened version of this combination, propelling the sensation of strings and conventional rock instrumentations into new levels of hysteria and transcendence.

Elsewhere, there are more familiar sounds that Radiohead fans will recognize: “Ful Stop” seeps in quietly, building on a searing guitar loop that crescendos periodically through the cacophony of Yorke’s falsetto wails and shimmering noises.

“Present Tense” is a rollicking, acoustic guitar-driven track that is reminiscent of the band’s prolific first decade of the new millennium. It is no less riveting for being familiar: a plaintive, yearning ode that hooks you throughout its tense course.

Lastly, the album closes with a tune that has batted around the Radiohead canon for two decades now, as a fan favorite at concerts—only officially appearing on the band’s Live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordingsin 2001. Now, “True Love Waits” is punctuated with muted piano chords and lilting keyboard effects. For a fan of the poignant, acoustic guitar-centered live version, it was initially unnerving. But in the context of this searing album, it is fitting. The somber, sedate take feels earned: wary yet hopeful, shattered but enthralled by the wonders of feeling, it’s a serene close to an otherworldly journey.