Alanis Morissette Battles Affliction and Finds Serenity on ‘Such Pretty Forks in the Road’
In 1995, when Alanis Morissette released “Jagged Little Pill,” she became the voice of a generation, capturing unspoken rage from a specifically female perspective, and delivering free-spirited musings in a voice that struck a chord. The last we heard from her was 2012’s “Havoc and Bright Lights,” which found her slightly more mellow. Since then, Morissette has continued to struggle with bouts of postpartum depression, had her former business manager Jonathan Todd Schwartz embezzle an estimated $5 million from her, lost her dog, and had to leave her home of over twenty years — all harships that offered her a well of inspiration. Now, she makes a grand return with “Such Pretty Forks in the Road.” In her farewell to music, the album finds Morissette as intense and idiosyncratic, both lyrically and musically, as she ever was.
“Such Pretty Forks in the Road” plunges instantly into tragic drama on “Smiling,” originally written for the 2018 “Jagged Little Pill” Musical. Morissette could hardly sound more authentic, with her voice tone delicately capturing all the anguish of the lyrics. She is up close, frail, and trembling as she begins, “This is a life of extremes,” fleshing out details, and erupting into a power chorus, upon which it’s clear you’re listening to no one other than Alanis Morissette. Morisette was an artist who soundtracked the ‘90s, and the musical stylings here are kept decidedly ‘90s, as if to encapsulate everything she represents in a surge. There is artistry in her wording, as she describes “the anatomy of my crash.”— why “anatomy?” Ultimately, what seemed like a guaranteed plummet ends up with a bittersweet sigh, as Morissette adds, “And I keep on smiling.” Written during a period when Morissette was encounteriing one hardship after another, this song is for everyone who puts on a pleasant facade and goes about business as usual, even as they are falling apart.
There was a time in the ‘90s when it somehow became in vogue to sing nasally, and apart from perhaps the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Morrissette best defines the trend. “Ablaze” is the type of track that will either enamor or alienate, as Morissette is embracing her quirk, winding through a cheery melody with a witchy type of abandon, curling up her words, making her vowel sounds sting, and singing Cranberries-style Celtic melodies. It’s undeniably catchy, for better or for worse, as it can be downright grating. The lyrics are quite epic, with Morissette tackling the cosmos with vivid, biblical language, in what turns out to be a song specifically for her children. With choruses of “to my boy” and “to my girl,” it’s unabashedly sappy, but full of wise observations like “They seem to easily forget we are made of the same cells.” There’s a guitar riff that comes in at just the right point, and makes it all work.
“Reasons I Drink” finds Morissette at her most camp, starting over a swaying, show tune melody. The song is a bit broader in scope than the title suggests, taking a sympathetic view of addicts in general. There are certainly echoes of the same spirit that embodied songs like “You Oughta Know,” with a defiant, seething tone and a sort of tragic glory. There is more yet in “Diagnosis,” with Morissette simply venting, declaring, “I don’t even care anymore,” and essentially reprising the torment of “Smiling,” in a collective cry. The way Morissette accents her syllables, to fit melodies into lines, can sometimes be bizarre, although it makes sense in the context of lyrics like “I can’t remember where the sentence started / When I’m trying to finish it.”
But then, there was the Alanis Morissette of 1998’s “Thank You,” the blissful, serene figure that seemed to have attained absolute contentment. That Morissette returns on “Missing the Miracle.” Although a song about the struggles of a marriage, Morissette presents her thoughts with such a singsong, cool composure that the titular line comes across more as a celebratory acknowledgment of a miracle than a complaint about missing one. There’s a swift relapse, however, on “Losing the Plot,” written when Morissette was suffering from postpartum depression, overwhelmed by family and work duties, and growing disillusioned. Still, however, when she ends the song declaring, “I am losing the plot,” it’s with a tone that returns to the struggling sigh of “Smiling.”
Morisette has written songs about sexual abuse before, like 2002’s “Hands Clean,” and she revisits the same theme in “Reckoning.” She addresses a young girl subject to predation, from a wiser, older perspective, and goes on to address the predator himself, taunting, “I hope you enjoy these drawings in your jail.” At this point, we are worlds away from the campy levity of tracks like “Ablaze” and “Reasons I Drink.” It’s pitch black, and Morissette trades in some of her quirky flourishes for a simple, earnest outpouring. With evocative strings, ethereal, reverberating vocals in the end, and more plaintive, incisive music than usual, it’s an especially poignant track. Morissette proceeds to explore the struggle to recover from sexual abuse, and have a healthy romantic relationship in “Sandbox Love.” It’s a topic both specific and broad that deserves consideration, and Morissette delivers it an example of her characteristic quirk at its greatest, with a chorus of “Awkward as fuck / Precious as fuck / Scary as fuck.” It’s about time we had a chorus like this. Gratuitous vulgarity in the middle of a pop song extends its appeal with a dash of hipster irony.
The spiritual musings and the venting come together on “Her.” Morissette begins distraught and depressed, like in so many songs. Instead of just lamenting, however, she turns the song into a prayer. A feminist of the highest ranks, she makes it a celebration of femininity, as the type of “god” figure she envisions is decidedly feminine. The titular line, “So I pray to her today,” rings like a feminist anthem of sorts, and Morissette again conveys all the emotion of her lyrics effectively with her voice.
“Nemesis” begins with Morissette taking on a more husky, soulful tone, over a foggy instrumental, but promptly reverting to her usual wailing. It’s an appropriate sound for a song like this, at any rate. The titular “Nemesis” is a personification of change. It recalls the context of “Smiling,” with Morissette’s move from her home coinciding with various tragedies. The song confesses a fear of change, and Morissette expresses it with the same type of contained chaos that runs throughout this album. The band gets a rare, well-deserved moment in the spotlight, with a rather indulgent outro. Morissette signs off with “Pedestal,” again sounding vulnerable and emotionally charged. The song is a scattering of frustrations, with Morissette taking inspiration from a moment when she played for a crowd of 40,000 people, yet felt alone romantically. As she often does, like in “You Oughta Know,” she ends up directing her lyrics toward a specific target, likely one of the predators she has encountered. The final lyrics of the album are “I hope you enjoyed the ride / Who wouldn’t?” On one hand, it’s the climactic bit of a taunting, venomous song about a serious subject. Of course, it also functions as a jokey nod to the listener.
And so we come to the question; who wouldn’t enjoy this ride? There are likely plenty who might find Morissette’s nasal shrieking and perpetual tragic posturing a bit much. Conversely, it’s essentially those same two qualities that make her such a fascinating artist in the first place, and will be most satisfying to fans. Morissette can sing conventionally, as you can hear in sections of the new songs. She simply chooses not to. There’s a primal quality to her particular stylization and reckless abandon that strikes a nerve. Moreover, it’s a perfect fit for her songs. The songs on “Such Pretty Forks in the Road” are about struggle, trauma, and abuse. Yet, they are also about perseverance, fortitude, and grace. Morissette inhabits a sonic space somewhere between youthful bitterness, rebellion, and mature spiritual contentment. When she sings about topics like sexual abuse, she speaks to women everywhere. The new album has everything that one could expect from a return of Alanis Morissette — the venting, the brooding, the enlightened reflections, the staunch feminist angle, and a voice that rebels and resonates.
“Such Pretty Forks in the Road” releases July 31 on Apple Music.