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May 16, 2004
The Solipsisters Sing Out Once Again
VENT and the world vents with you. Heal and you heal alone, or at least with a few million fewer fans.

Avril Lavigne and Alanis Morissette both came up with blockbuster albums when they wailed their rage at men and friends who did them wrong: Ms. Lavigne with "Let Go" in 2002 and Ms. Morissette, one of her forerunners, with "Jagged Little Pill" in 1995. And both have come up with albums Ms. Lavigne's "Under My Skin" (RCA), her second, and Ms. Morissette's fourth American album, "So Called Chaos" (Maverick) that vent anew. Ms. Morissette, 29, tries to stay adult about things, seeing mixed motives and shadings; Ms. Lavigne is 19 and simply fed up.

"You Oughta Know," the single that made "Jagged Little Pill" indelible and taught a few things to Ms. Lavigne, Pink, Kelis and other blunt young women was the sound of a formerly pliant girl giving way to her inner banshee avenger as she ambushes her ex at dinner. "Complicated," from Ms. Lavigne's "Let Go," was equal parts complaint and confrontation: a whine about a guy who's fine in private but turns into a jerk under peer pressure. It was a conventional power ballad, but it had the advantage of being sung and partly written by an actual teenager. Amazingly, the professionally produced, highly calculated Ms. Lavigne managed to put herself across as an alternative to the manufactured pop of Britney Spears, offering a suburban high-school version of keepin' it real.

Ms. Morissette and Ms. Lavigne tapped one of pop's secret mother lodes: the suppressed female anger at what men get away with. There's an eager market for songs in which women strike back. At Dixie Chicks concerts, the loudest cheers greet "Goodbye Earl," about a wife who murders her abusive husband. Wide expanses of male-dominated music, from blues-rock to punk-pop to rap-metal, announce resentment at the opposite sex. But women are less likely to stay vindictive. Perhaps they'd rather find a way to get along; perhaps they don't want to be branded as man-hating harpies. For women, the million-selling pop trick is to stay sympathetic while lashing out.

"Jagged Little Pill" became the best-selling American solo debut album ever (Ms. Morissette had made two previous kiddie-pop albums in Canada), but Ms. Morissette spent her next two studio albums backing away from it. She seemed to insist that though at some point in the past she had been a clinging, overly accommodating, careerist, eating-disordered emotional wreck, she was O.K. now. Really.

Well, maybe a little insecure now and then. Maybe, on her 2002 "Under Rug Swept," a little touchy about some undefined encounter with a mentor, perhaps when she was underage, perhaps a "supposed crime." But as long as "I decide not to abandon me," as she sang, she was just fine. Other characters virtually disappeared from her songs; so did specificity or stories, to be replaced by lists, self-examination and psychobabble. Album sales plummeted, though she can still count on a million loyal fans.

On "So Called Chaos," Ms. Morissette figures out how to put some venom back into her songs. Nine years after she wrote the unironic "Ironic," she has discovered actual irony. "Eight Easy Steps" starts the album with a triumphal infomercial for the inverse of a self-help course, with topics like "How to keep smiling when you're thinking of killing yourself." She backhandedly admits to jealous despair in the ungrammatical "Doth I Protest Too Much," and she offers herself as the ultimate self-sacrificing girlfriend in "Spineless."

Unfortunately, the rest of the album returns to self-help. "Past-riddled rage/ I see the buttons I engage," she sings in "Not All Me," while "Excuses" lists the rationalizations that hold her back. In "This Grudge," she returns yet again to the unexplained trauma that has so far yielded "11 songs 4 full journals." Her production deploys folk-rock, ringing U2 crescendos and hints of Indian and Arabic music on the album; the title song, "So Called Chaos," melds Indian drums, trip-hop electronics and a power-chorded chorus as Ms. Morissette bemoans career pressures. The music rings proudly, but the narcissism is suffocating.

Where Ms. Morissette fled her old role, Ms. Lavigne digs into hers on "Under My Skin." Confronting tormentors and dumping boyfriends left and right, she's providing fellow teen-age girls with scripts for resistance. In "Don't Tell Me," which builds from a folk-rock verse to a hard-rock chorus like a Morissette song, she kicks out a guy who pressures her for sex: "Don't try to tell me what to do/Don't try to tell me what to say," she sings. In "My Happy Ending," she charges, "All this time you were pretending," and she gives another guy the thumbs-down in the pop-punk "He Wasn't" because "he never made me feel like I was special." A gloomy, minor-key power ballad, "Forgotten," tells yet another reject, "Don't know how much you screwed it up."

MS. LAVIGNE has traded the pop-rock of the Matrix, her collaborators on her first album, for something just slightly less slick, with pushier guitars. She wrote most of the songs with the 31-year-old Canadian songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and recorded them with Ms. Kreviazuk's husband, Raine Maida, the singer in the band Our Lady Peace.

The Matrix took Ms. Lavigne's sense of humor (as in "Sk8er Boi") with them. She's full of sullen adolescent self-pity throughout "Under My Skin," and her idea of a working romance is one in which, "I don't want a conversation, I just want to cry in front of you." There's little subtlety on "Under My Skin," and (as in Ms. Kreviazuk's own songs) absolutely no fear of clichés. But on the emotionally fraught battleground that is high-school romance, perhaps those would be frills.