First Listen Review: Havoc and Bright Lights – Alanis Morissette

I was with Alanis Morissette as a big fan for a very long time.  I first latched onto her in my youth via her pop albums and songs “An Emotion Away” and “Too Hot”.  By a strange coincidence, my tastes veered into alternative just as she made the genre jump and released the critically acclaimed Jagged Little Pill.  I often joke that Alanis came with me in my musical evolution, simply because of how uncanny the timing was.

While subsequent releases Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept continued to wow me, I found So-Called Chaos incredibly patchy and lacklustre, and the lead single from Flavors Of Entanglement did nothing for me (although I dug on her cover of “Guerilla Radio” that circulated on YouTube).  I haven’t given up entirely on Alanis, though.  With fresh ears, here’s a first listen take on her latest album, Havoc and Bright Lights.

Guardian:  From the first thirty seconds, I’m already more impressed with this album than So-Called Chaos.  Holy crap, is that a rocking intro and chorus?  Thank you, Alanis.  Hook-filled and piano-heavy love tune made for radio airplay yet satisfying.  Playful and at times bombastic.

Woman Down:  The opening of this one reminds me of Savage Garden circa mid-90s.  That’s a good thing:  it’s electronic and hip-shaking, without sounding like everything else in clubs right now.  A scathing condemnation of men who mistreat women, it’s got an anthem feel without losing a sense of joy within the uprising.  And for those who don’t feel the tune’s relevant today, sexism is indeed alive and well.  Just look at the American Republicans and their “legitimate rape” crap.  There’s a lot of elements of Jagged Little Pill and SFIJ between the lines in these tracks – certain uses of background vocals, stop-starts.  It’s reassuring.

Til You:  Low-key ballad slows the album down.  Breathy and reminiscent of Celine Dion, almost.  A little too adult contemporary for my liking (and for this album, thus far).  Not feeling it.  Can’t even finish it.

Celebrity:  Dark and percussive.  Almost Portishead-ish.  Really striking and in sharp relief to much of her back catalogue, I love how raw and vicious this song is.  Alanis, needless to stay, shreds celebrity status, petty concerns and the ways people try to fit into the boxes that will make the machine love them.  “I am a tattooed, sexy, dancing monkey.”

Empathy:  Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies, hiding away the best parts of ourselves within the worst.  Protection means building walls, and Alanis delves into the notion on this piano-pop tune that pays tribute to someone able to see beneath the masks and understand motives and intent.  Really lovely piano melodies here.

Lens:  Alanis is definitely playing with reverb and more trip-hop on this album, while not losing her distinct flavour.  Riff-laced pop-rock song playing out a war of differing views and finding the more loving lens to look through, so to speak.  There’s a social justice/worldview undercurrent here, and I dig it.  Potential single in spite of its broader focus, as it can be brought down to a one-on-one interpretation.

Spiral:  There’s an urgency and sense of movement to this one that reminds me of Andrew McMahon’s California-soaked melodies penned for Jack’s Mannequin.  Anyone believing that Alanis is perpetually angry is proven wrong on this album; there’s a thread of positivity running here, without losing the ability to deliver edge when needed.  The album’s pretty balanced.  A song of rising above one’s past and negativity.

Numb:  Grungey and rocking, this could be a lost track from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and its rage via guitars and sense of sinking beneath the surface without hope of being saved.  Nice Pink Floyd wink-wink, Alanis.

Havoc:  Piano and strings accompany a low-register voice, for the most part.  If “Spiral” is the struggle to resist a fall and “Numb” is the plummet down, “Havoc” is the crumpled body on the ground, struggling to her feet.  There are elements reminiscent of “Uninvited” in the sonic landscape, although the notion of accepting consequences for one’s own failings is more Under Rug Swept than anything else.

Win And Win:  Love the percussion on this one.  Playful and fun.  There’s a vibe of sitting at sunset, drinking wine and reflecting with close friends around a bonfire.  Love song, one that clearly defines the entire theme of this album:  balance, and its importance.  Part of me wonders why “Til You” was included on this album at all.  It doesn’t fit with any of the songs, even the slower love ballads like this one, and said ballads are all superior.

Receive:  Now that we’re nearing the end of the album, I can safely say that everything I didn’t care for about the vibe and flow of So-Called Chaos has taken a hike.  This album’s a throwback to Under Rug Swept with a more electronic feel and some of Jagged Little Pill’s crunch.  The struggle to accept, to receive within relationships, is the topic here.  Very classic Alanis in every way.

Edge Of Evolution:  Quirky electronic intro strangely reminds me of Styx hit “Mr. Roboto”.  Very disorienting, given the predominantly slow meander of this album closer.  I can appreciate Alanis’ spiritual side and her desire for harmony, but it feels like she’s written this song before (“Utopia”,  for one example).  However, given the predecessors, this is probably the strongest incarnation and feels like a grower track.  The outro’s solid.

Final Comments:  If you were with Alanis through Under Rug Swept and enjoyed everything she’d put out to that point, Havoc and Bright Lights is a satisfying release.  I suspect this album will chart better than Flavors Of Entanglement, given the plethora of radio-ready single material for a variety of genres.  Although Alanis’ songwriting still remains a bit awkward at times, it seems to have matured, with more of an ability to play within her musical sandbox.  The album on the whole feels like a grower, one that requires repeated listening to fully appreciate.  Luckily, there’s enough strong material here to lure one into giving it that time.

Highlights:  Guardian; Woman Down; Celebrity; Numb

Lowlights:  Til You (god-awful); Havoc

Final Grade On First Listen:  B+

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