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Review: Alanis Morissette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie

​Part of Morissette’s evolution as a musician and individual is recognizing and accepting her own imperfections.

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Alanis Morissette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie

Judging by many of the tracks on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, the follow-up to Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill, the singer was clearly trying to negotiate the pressure of having sold 16 million albums. It took over three years for Morissette to produce the album, and though it finds her grappling with the industry expectations that were dumped on her in the time since she had exploded onto the music map as Angry White Female with the hit “You Oughta Know,” the album reflects a more grounded, if not calmer, side of the superstar. Having taken refuge in India (among other places) prior to writing and recording the album, Morissette returned with a renewed sense of self, new spiritual wisdom, and a wide-eyed innocence that renders what could have sounded pedantic or preachy, quite simply, resonating.

That’s not to say Morissette isn’t angry anymore. Part of her evolution as a musician and human is recognizing and accepting her own imperfections. Whether she’s chiding a false guru on “Baba” or a self-righteous lover on “Are You Still Mad,” Morissette is nothing short of contemptuous: “Are you still mad that I gave up long before you did?/Of course you are,” she sneers. “I Was Hoping,” a stream-of-consciousness work that seems like it could go on long after its three-and-a-half minutes and still be engaging, finds Morissette embracing her anger, the emotion she seemed to be embroiled in a personal battle with on Jagged Little Pill. When confronted with her own pride at a restaurant where her fame goes unrecognized, she says, “I too once thought I was owed something.”

Meanwhile, “Would Not Come” finds Morissette in search of “It”—happiness? enlightenment? God? all of the above?—in the midst of fame, fortune, and pleasure, while “One,” which provides her answer, displays both unapologetic self-awareness and a sardonic analysis of celebrity: “I’ve gotten candy for my self-interest/The sexy treadmill capitalist/Heaven forbid I be criticized/Heaven forbid I be ignored.” Even Morissette’s methods of saving a suicidal friend on “Joining You” are given an alternative/metaphysical slant: We are not our bodies, our successes or failures, she tells him. “If we were,” she says, “I’d be joining you.” She doesn’t predictably tell her friend that “life is worth living,” she tells him that it’s simply all an illusion—one that’s not worth dying for.

Morissette re-teamed with producer Glen Ballard for Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, and the result is even more affluent (or effluent, depending on your perspective), the slickness of tracks like “Can’t Not” nearly impenetrable. Somehow, though, this only adds to the album’s grandeur and overwhelming sense of import. Obviously influenced musically as much as she was spiritually by her global journeys, songs like “The Couch” have an undeniable world-music flair. Though distinctly “pop” in style and execution, the album runs the gamut from dance-pop to rock and includes everything from dramatic string orchestrations to hip-hop loops and roaring electric guitars. The first single, “Thank U,” features a soft-rock synth hook and a bundle of Morissette’s signature list-y lyrics—“How ’bout getting off of these antibiotics?…How ’bout them transparent dangling carrots?”—that are anything but ordinary. Morissette wails not with rage, but with revelation. The stacked vocal overdubs that have become her trademark are all over the album, as is her cute verbage (she uses the word “muchly” in both song and liner notes) and disjointed phrasing (“I was afraid of your ex-plo-si-ons!” she sings on “Sympathetic Character”).

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is decidedly more challenging than its predecessor. The hooks are hidden beneath atypical song structures—the clever “Unsent,” which is sung as a series of letters to ex-boyfriends, and “That I Would Be Good,” which ends with a painful yet endearing flute solo by Morissette—and the songs aren’t as humorous or immediate as, say, “Ironic.” Often bloated? Sure. Over-ambitious? Yes. The album is nearly 15 minutes too long, but not one moment of its 70-plus minutes is less than captivating.

Label: Maverick Release Date: November 3, 1998 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results

Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.

Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.

Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.

The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.

Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip

On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.

3.0

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Joe Jackson, Fool

Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.

The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.

Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.

Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.

If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.

Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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