Alanis Morissette's trademark songwriting idiosyncrasies are very deliberately scaled back on Havoc and Bright Lights, the singer-songwriter's first album in four years. There are still a few instances of garbled syntax (the couplet, "This woman's neuroses a desperate plea/For slack to be cut to me," on "Spiral," is indefensible), but, in a marked change, she relies more often on simple, declarative statements that actually fit the meter of her songs. But while both the album's lead single, "Guardian," and the standout ballad "Empathy" boast lyrical hooks that are as plainspoken and genuinely lovely as anything she's ever written, the increased clarity of her lyrics also places some of her most granola ideas front and center, as when she sings, "I give big/I give all/And now it's time to regenerate," on "Receive."
Though Morissette has come up with some truly inspired imagery and clever turns of phrase when writing in her signature "list song" style, it's turned into something of a crutch in recent years. Thankfully, she wisely avoids that structure throughout most of Havoc, and both of the songs that are structured in that fashion have clear, linear narratives, as opposed to the more impressionistic list songs she's written in the past, like "Hand in My Pocket" and "Thank U." "Woman Down," a timely dressing down of a misogynist that's the only song on the album driven by a real sense of conflict, and "Win & Win" have purposeful, meaningful stories to tell, and their attention to detail makes them two of the album's strongest offerings.
Unfortunately, too many of the songs on Havoc lack that specificity and Morissette's inimitable POV. Her best material has always traded in forces of tension and change, but she spends most of the album sounding like she's leading a meditation. That's fine as far as life choices go, but it doesn't necessarily make for compelling music. "Spiral" drones on about the effects of negativity without providing any authentic first-person details that would give weight to its complaints, while "Edge of Evolution" is a lecture about "full-blown consciousness," "sacred duality," and "pure awareness" with all the urgency of a self-help seminar.
Producers Guy Sigsworth and Joe Chiccarelli reflect the even-keeled tone of the songs in their unobtrusive, tasteful arrangements. The album's sonic palette is fairly limited, with simple drum loops, barely there electronic flourishes, and ringing electric-guitar power chords during the choruses. Aside from the minor-key digression of "Numb," the album's only nod to the modern rock of Morissette's heyday, Havoc's sound is a more upbeat, less fussy reiteration of Sigsworth's work on Flavors of Entanglement. This shift toward relative simplicity is a logical extension of Morissette's increasingly new age-y focus over the past decade, but while the album's pared-down aesthetic might make sense within the context of Morissette's career arc, it also results in an album that, at times, is almost too polite to impose itself.