Album A&E is a series in which we revisit underrated or maligned albums and give them some much-needed rehabilitation.
I was 11 when I first heard ‘Hand In My Pocket’. It’s one of those music memories I recall vividly. On the school bus home from swimming, hair still wet, whiff of chlorine, cloudy day, itchy school uniform, my friend – I think it was Sophie Mo – gave me her Walkman to listen to. Cue initial schoolgirl tittering at the ‘chicken shit’ lyrics but quickly, a magnetic attraction to Alanis Morissette’s startling voice, the strange melody and the bouncing bass-driven rhythm. Over the next few years I’d become one of the 30+ million who’d clutch ‘Jagged Little Pill’ close, to the point where it became much more than just an album in my CD collection.
For the first time in years, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ has re-entered the UK Top 40 due to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing it in their popular BBC TV show ‘The Trip’. It’s no surprise to me that Morissette’s career high has been embraced by a new generation, but, to many, the artist is perceived with a degree of snark and cynicism. Witness the ridicule over news the album would be turned into a Broadway musical. Since the positive zeal of album reviews diminished over the last couple of decades mirroring the softening of her angsty punk, she’s characterised as an emo, histrionic peddler of teenage poetry who over-sings every line and needs a good haircut. A little bit full-on, a little bit embarrassing, way too overplayed. Chill out, Alanis. And music’s changed a lot since Radiohead supported Morissette on tour in ’96.
But it’s the unvarnished nature of ‘Jagged Little Pill’ that made – makes – it one of the greatest. Cleverly, Morrissette wrote an intensely personal album about specific facets of her life that millions could somehow relate to. By going totally inside her self and baring her psyche without restraint, she made the thing universal and inclusive. Though the record was the best-selling of 1996, shifting nearly 20 million copies worldwide and winning shelves of awards, it deserves a bit of a resuscitation amid the sniggers.
‘Jagged Little Pill’ was written by Morrissette when she was 21 and had just moved from her parents’ home to Toronto in the mid 90s. She wrote it with producer Glen Ballard after they met and had an instant connection. Ballard, a bit of a veteran by 1996, had written for Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ and ‘Thriller’ and went on to co-pen Christina Aguilera’s anthem ‘The Voice Within’. Not a bad CV, then. The curious pair holed up in Ballard’s studio and set out to write and record one song a day, pulling 16 hours shifts but keeping the takes to a minimum of one or two (to preserve rawness). ‘Perfect’ was written in just 20 minutes. During later mastering sessions, when extra instrumentals were laid down, her original demo vocals were used. Among other session musicians, Flea and Dave Navarro also play on the record as well as a guitarist with the majestic name ‘Basil Fung’.
You could argue the case for ‘Jagged Little Pill’ as a concept album. It is the uncensored diary of a raw young adult experiencing life in all its messy, painful, unfair glory for the first time. Unjaded and frankly traumatized, Morrissette recounts her feelings and emotions made even sharper by the new skin they marked. If it was a film it would be called, simply, ‘Ouch’.
Writing in visceral similes, metaphors and double-meanings, Morrisette’s lyrics pour out with vigour, like a tap fit to burst. On ‘You Oughta Know’ she lambasts a cheating ex-partner. “Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it,” she howls, revelling in her bitterness and resentment, unapologetic for feeling like shit.
There’s a feminist potency to it that inspired me as I transitioned from child to adult. Morrisette sang of what she wanted, what she really wanted and what she most definitely did not want. My impression of it as a 13-year-old was: if she can express what she wants, so can I. She took life by the scruff of the neck and bawled in its face. She legitimised feelings and discarded shame.
One of the reasons the album so struck a chord with millions is its broad thematic content. Morrissette tackles the rollercoaster of life head on, exploring religious hypocrisy, jealousy, parental expectations, drinking, mental illness, co-dependence, the patriarchy, friendship, self-esteem, infidelity and on. For the “young and the underpaid, who haven’t got it figured out just yet,” there was a ton of identification. And even though Morrisette was a middle-class white girl with a comfortable upbringing in a strict Catholic family, these themes are pretty universal. Everyone’s gone in the “wrong direction” at some time or other.
But away from the lyrics and the unrepentant gush of feelings, there are big tunes. In abundance. 12 out of 12 to be precise. The music of ‘Jagged Little Pill’ is quite complicated. There are hair-pin shifts between verses and choruses, almost mimicking a mind slightly panicked at modern life. Quiet and tender at times (‘Forgiven’, ‘Mary Jane’, ‘Perfect’), Morrissette uses dynamics to their full effect, ramping up the alt-rock chord progressions, tough enough to sit alongside her enormous voice. Perhaps the harmonica sounds dated but she plays out of it it. Bass guitar. one of the main characters on ‘Jagged Little Pill’, underpins and underlines the physical intensity of the album, with a boom in your belly.
‘Jagged Little Pill’ also paved the way for plenty of solo confessional song-writers: Taylor Swift, Christina Aguilera, Bright Eyes, Drake, the list goes on. Call it lame, call it dated, this album made it OK to write about inner worlds, a powerful way of connecting with an audience. The most interesting albums are those, like ‘JLP’, that transcend the notes on a page and bleed into life, telling us a little bit more about who we are.