I’m in Alanis Morissette withdrawal. I got her new CD, Under Rug Swept, when it came out last month, but now I’m in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, with nothing to play it on. I’m here to do long interviews with people on a serious historical subject, but four or five of Alanis’ songs keep playing in my head; I think about things Alanis said.
I recognize that I’m obsessed, recognize too that at 46, my obsession is somewhat unseemly. People say that obsession is not a good thing, that it is about dead feelings, or nostalgia, or hang-ups, that it is passion curled back on itself. So I’m trying to remember how this started.
Alanis Morissette was never my cup of tea. I can say honestly that I didn’t like her. Her early work (what I heard of it) struck me as mannered and self-conscious. Her regard for her own originality seemed egotistical; she could not murder her darlings, as the saying goes.
Then in January, I was driving around New Zealand’s north island (on the same Pacific project I’m at work on now) when her label released “Hands Clean,” the first single off the new album. I recognized her voice instantly, and with a wave of irritation. My finger shot out to flip the radio to another station—in fact, I was viciously excited to do so, to blank her out of the conscious universe again and forever—when something held me: The material was completely psychological, the mood was soulful.
The next time the song came on, I cranked it up.
“Hands Clean” is about an illicit relationship between a man and a young woman. It is told chiefly from the man’s point of view, as he offers his rationalizations: “I know that you sexualize me, as a young thing would, and I think I like it …. ”
But the refrain is from the girl’s perspective. At these times, Alanis’ voice surges powerfully:
And I have honored your request for silence
And you washed your hands clean of this.
It may seem like an angry song, but it isn’t. The girl’s anger feels historical. She seems to see the relationship in its entirety, to recognize her own hunger for experience. There are tender and thoughtful moments (“What part of our history’s reinvented and under rug swept?”), and her statement “I have honored your request for silence” is stately and even loving.
But it wasn’t just the words. Alanis’ voice had grown out of its youthful quaver into a strong, womanly instrument. She had emotional clarity and generosity, qualities that had me enthralled.
At that time my travels took me on to Australia and England, and notwithstanding my urgent business, I found myself driving around Fremantle or Hull waiting for them to play that song again.
Then the new CD came out at the end of February, and I bought it on lower Broadway, just before starting another trip. My first stop was Albuquerque, and I upgraded to a midsize car so that I could listen to her on the CD player. Very soon it was clear that the same spirit of ampleness and emotional clarity that animates “Hands Clean” pours off the album.
Alanis had become one of my guides. I was interested in anything she had to say.
Or in point of fact, I was stuck. I rented seven more oversized cars in California and down through the Pacific, just to have a CD player and be able to hear her. (Not only was she now costing me hundreds of dollars, but in a couple of cases it meant renting S.U.V.’s, which violates every principle I believe in.)
In Hilo I put only 11 miles on the car (my interviewee drove me around), but sat in the rain at 5 in the morning at the airport for 20 minutes because I’d finally gotten the hang of the album. Then later in Waikiki, I went into a kind of fugue on Ala Moana Boulevard and Kapuhulu Road, with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on high, because by then I’d identified the master cuts and was playing them over and over.
Come Australia and New Zealand, I put on another 700 Alanis-ridden miles.
By then, I confess even I was getting sick of Alanis, and so I tried to break the spell by loading other CD’s: Dylan, John Lee Hooker, the O Brother soundtrack, Beth Orton and Mick Jagger’s new solo album.
I listened to them all, too, but the truth is that I only played these albums so as to give myself a break from Alanis, so that I could return to life with Alanis. They were a kind of palate cleanser. Or in the case of Dylan and Jagger, comfort food, the macaroni and cheese that they first began serving me in the high-school cafeteria. I would calm myself down and give myself a break, and then play Alanis again, driving through priggish sleepy New Zealand villages like Clarence and Warkworth with Alanis on way too loud, upsetting the sheep and the Kiwis in their walking shorts.
Because Alanis is never calming. Alanis is highly psychically disturbing. Alanis plunges me into a raw and almost bleedingly reflective mood.
If you say “What is the album about?,” it is about Alanis’ search for a genuine relationship, for engagement that is respectful and intense and alive, at this moment.
Right now my favorite song is Track 4. It is about obsession, about Alanis being hung up on a guy she went out with over 10 years ago. It has the feel of a Poe story, as Alanis tries to understand the dead hand of these old feelings. The writing is touched, very nearly mad:
What are you, my blood?
You touch me like you are my blood.
What are you, my dad?
You affect me like you are my dad.
(And when Alanis sings “affect,” it sounds like “fucked.”)
I find this song, called “Flinch,” almost too intense to listen to. It is really about consciousness. When a man at a party tells her that the object of her affection is in the next room, Alanis sings—clunkily and divinely:
This man knows not of how this information has affected me
But he knows the color of the car I just drove away in.
Recognizing the color of a car but not a powerful feeling is false consciousness. Alanis’ goal is to tear away those beliefs, to determine what she really wants, now. And she is always running down men who rely on their intelligence, defensively, when her only real aim in relationship is emotional readiness and fearlessness.
I try and think when I have been obsessed with an album before. Rubber Soul when I was a teen; the Wailers’ Catch a Fire when I was in college; Otis Redding Live when I moved to the Midwest; Joy Division when I met my wife. And in all those cases, the experience was eroticized—first crush, first love. The song was intertwined with passion that folded over on itself.
Now I would like to know what this middle-aged obsession is about. I suppose I’m vulnerable; I’ve been traveling on my own for most of the last year, and the historical material that I am exploring is often painful. It seems to me that I need Alanis’ innocence and exaltation in my life right now (there is not one clever, arch or coy statement on this record).
The album winds up with two visionary songs, Track 9, “You Owe Me Nothing in Return,” and Track 11, “Utopia.” “You Owe Me Nothing” is about Alanis’ ideal relationship, and it is naïve, romantic, stunning and confident:
You can ask for space for yourself and only yourself and I’ll grant it
You can ask for freedom as well or time to travel and you’ll have it
You can ask to live by yourself or love someone else and I’ll support it ….
You owe me nothing for giving the love that I give
You owe me nothing for caring the way that I have ….
Needing to hear it again, I borrowed a Toshiba computer with a CD player last night from a French anthropologist across the courtyard from me. (Who’s studying volcano-dwellers in Tonga.) She lent me her earphones, too. Still, I felt constrained. This guesthouse is crowded with Pacific islanders and others who might think I am crazy if they got a whiff of what I’m up to.
Tonight, I have a better plan. I will go to the men’s club that is cater-corner to the Royal Palace and find the D.J. Kitione (or Gideon) Mokofisi at his usual spot on the bar. Gideon has a CD player; we listened to it in his van at the beach in January. And Gideon understands musical obsession—he’s a D.J. I won’t let Gideon buy a drink, and then I’ll borrow his van and get lost.