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'Under Rug Swept': Morissette Extends Her Decrying Jag

submitted by Christina E Stephens

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2002; Page C01

For a tie-dyed alt-rocker with terrific teeth and a ringing bell of a voice, Alanis Morissette sure seems to bug a lot of people.

She has plenty of fans, of course, and about 15 million of them bought"Jagged Little Pill," her Grammy-collecting third album. But with the possible exceptions of Sinead O'Connor and Courtney Love -- both of whom are perpetually looking for a brawl -- Morissette has female vocaldom's most agitated legion of detractors. She's thrown a few elbows, too, but mostly she just wants to be loved. She's the Hillary Clinton of pop.

"Let me be perfectly frank here," begins an anti-Alanis rant on the Internet. "I would rather be chained to a cheetah and dragged through a street of knives than listen to another Alanis Morissette song. What I feel for her isn't simple hate, it is an all-encompassing repulsion not unlike what you might feel if you woke up to discover a four-pound cockroach using your toothbrush."

That 1996 passage from the aptly named Spite magazine is more colorful than most, but it illustrates the venom that's been out there for years. And with Alanis, as with Hillary, the roots of the animosity she inspires are nearly as interesting as the person. What exactly is so irritating about her? Why do many un-fans wish her not merely failure but also jail time and noogies?

The release of "Under Rug Swept," her fifth album, seems like a good moment to ask. Morissette's first effort without a producer or co-writer is her darkest and most relentlessly confessional to date. Much of her career has turned audiences into therapists, and "Under" often feels like a 50-minute hour that won't end. Through much of it, she's venting at an unnamed ex-boyfriend who Morissette has recently said is a much older man she worked with during her days as a Canadian teen-pop star, when she was all of 14 or 15 years old.

In retrospect, she's probably been singing about this guy for years; he could be the bull's-eye in the middle of earlier hits like "You Oughta Know." But on this album's first single, "Hands Clean," he actually slithers onstage, as Morissette sings from his perspective: "If it weren't for your maturity none of this would have happened / If you weren't so wise beyond your years I would've been able to control myself / And if it weren't for me you wouldn't have amounted to very much."

Given Canadian law -- which criminalizes sex between anyone under 18 and a person in a relationship of trust or authority -- Morissette might have been a victim of statutory rape, which goes some way toward explaining the otherwise baffling scent of tragedy, self-doubt and anger that has suffused much of her work since she first invaded the U.S. airwaves in 1995. Even someone willing to liken Alanis to a giant cockroach would have to admit that she's endured a genuine trauma.

But like a lot of traumas, Morissette's is a trial to hear about. Producer and co-writer Glen Ballard helped shaped "Pill" and its less successful 1998 follow-up, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," and he clearly shook his client out of fulmination mode every now and again. On the Ballard-free"Rug," there are no glimmers of hope, few intimations of common ground and not a hint that "it's going to be fine, fine, fine," as she once predicted on "Hand in My Pocket."

Instead, there are nakedly un-poetic recriminations set to half-paced hip-hop beats and grabbing, ominous guitar power chords. "Dear egotist boy, you've never really had to suffer any consequence / You've never stayed with anyone longer than 10 minutes," she grumbles in "Narcissus." The folky and introspective "Flinch" roughs up a former lover for lingering in her memory, while "So Unsexy" tacks some uncomfortably raw inner thoughts ("I can feel so boring for someone so interesting") to slow-motion funk.

Through it all, Morissette never wavers from total self-involvement. On the achy and regret-filled "That Particular Time," she botches an opportunity for real poignancy with the line "In the meantime I lost myself," when you'd swear the lesson she's about to learn is that she lost "my love." On this album, she sees herself in every reflective surface, and people exist only insofar as they rotate around her.

On the one hand, there's something kind of mesmerizing about "Under," an album that is accomplished enough to answer anyone who's ever dismissed Alanis as a marionette. At a time when Britney and her sound-alikes are selling a fraudulent idea of every-hair-in-place perfection, there's something refreshing about a young pop star who is willing to show us her mussed, unbalanced core. But "Under" is tiring in the way that unburdenings often are, and it never points toward any resolution or peace.

By the time dessert comes in this heavy meal of words and acrimony, you wish Morissette a speedy recovery -- and hope that her convalescence happens just out of earshot.