Saturday, December 19, 2020

Jagged Little Pill: 33 million people got it right

It's in our DNA. Bob and I and every other person on the planet who take our music listening seriously tend to be insular snobs. We like what we like, we know what we don't like. And we bristle in anger and fear, putting our brains and hearts into lockdown, when those not in our cult invade our nests to push some mainstream pop propoganda. If a gazillion indiscriminating lowbrows are laying down cash on the newest Next Big Thing, we know it as we breathe: It's a pile of shite.

And then, one day, some of the luckier among us discover that the unwashed masses sometimes know what the hell they are talking about.

For a few years, I was aware that a gaggle of successful female singer-songwriters had been emerging from the alternative-rock scene of the mid- and late 1990s. I wouldn't recognize any of their faces or their music if someone banged me on the head with one of their albums, but some of the names -- Fiona Apple, Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos -- had worked there way into my cultural consciousness. 

One lazy weekend afternoon, I stumbled onto a clip show of Saturday Night Live musical performances. I am certain this was in 2000 or thereabouts, so I'm guessing it might have been a retrospective for the show's 25th anniversary or something. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, enjoying a trip down nostalgia lane through the lens of perspective. So I had been paying pretty close attention for awhile when Don Pardo's voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Alanis Morissette."

Cool I thought, one of those names I've been hearing for a few years now, let's see what she's all about. And I liked what I saw and heard, quite a bit as a matter of fact. I wouldn't say I was immediately awestruck or that my mind was blown five ways to Sunday or anything like that. But I definitely was intrigued with this throwback hippie-looking chick pacing aimlessly around the stage singing a sort of modern folk-rocker about keeping a hand in her pocket while making peace signs with the other one or something. She closed the sale for me by lifting harmonica to mouth and blowing out a full-on Dylanesque bridge before singing the final verse about hailing taxicabs. I thought it was pretty damn cool, and I wanted more.

A day or two later, I found myself in Fry's Music hunting whatever CD it was with "Hand in My Pocket" on the tracklist. I found it on an album released in 1995, about five years prior. I bought a copy of Jagged Little Pill (1995), dropped it in the CD player for the drive home and have been in love with this monster ever since.

Only after I deep-dived into Jagged Little Pill did I learn that this is one of the best-selling albums in the history of albums. Three of its tracks ("You Learn," "Ironic" and "Head Over Feet") were No. 1 singles in '95 and '96, and two others ("Hand In My Pocket" and "You Oughta Know") hit the Top 10. a bunch of these songs were top 40 hits in the day. On first listen, I did recognize "You Oughta Know" as a tune I had heard as background noise. But the rest was completely new to me. I had no idea this was such a juggernaut in its day, so I had the great benefit to get to know this record on its own terms. And it is fabulous. It wraps its tentacles around my spine every time I listen to it, start to finish. It's a desert-island disc for me, no matter how short my list has to be (well, OK, it would at least be a strong contender if my list had to be only one). 

The story behind Jagged Little Pill is well-known: Disillusioned 19-year-old Canadian pop prodigy lands in Los Angeles looking for guidance finding her muse, meets 40-something professional songwriter and production veteran, gives him her diary of heartbreak and anger in lyric form. The two of them hole up in his home studio for a couple weeks writing and recording demos on the fly. They shop their stuff around to a few record-company execs who show no interest until someone at Madonna's Maverick Records takes a flyer. And then, bam, former prodigy wakes up one morning as alternative-rocking, pop-charting, ticket-selling goddess. 

A quarter-century on, Jagged Little Pill, to me, remains a powerhouse. As happens in the aftermath of monstrously successful works of art, the backlash starts flying and gets increasingly vicious. "Juvenile feminist manifesto," say the "You Oughta Know" detractors. "Those things aren't ironic." "That caterwauling is fingernails on blackboard." You know that stuff. It's been floating around for years.

Here's how I see it: This record is near-perfect. Morissette poured every ounce of her soul into these songs, which land squarely in Plastic Ono Band primal-scream territory. And Ballard was exactly the right person at exactly the right time to get this material delivered with exactly the right production.

There is no question that Jagged Little Pill was lightning in a bottle. Every aspect of this thing came together perfectly, and it holds up very well 25 years later. But it is not your typical one-off luckbox record. Morissette and Ballard delivered a follow-up in 1998 that I like a lot and did sell pretty well. And she has delivered a handful of well-received albums since. I'll probably do another piece down the road on her post-JLP work.

JLP has been repackaged many times -- even as a Broadway musical.

OK, I do have one criticism:
Jagged Little Pill was among the last albums released officially on vinyl, augmented by a CD release containing tacked-on "bonus material." The vinyl release contained 12 tracks, the closer being "Wake Up." The CD release had 13 tracks -- the identically sequenced vinyl tracks with an additional track at the end. That 13th CD track, timing in at 8:13, is my bone of contention. It contains a completely unnecessary alternate mix of the 4:09 second track, "You Oughta Know," followed by 62 seconds of silence and then one of those Easter-egg tracks record execs and producers were so fond of back in the day. That hidden track is a powerful, beautiful a capella performance of a song titled "Your House," clocking in at a little more than three minutes. It would have been a perfect cap to the vinyl release, possibly left off for technology reasons. It is a fantastic closer for the CD. But the packaging shenanigans severely limits the song's impact. The close of this album would have been devastating had "Your House" directly followed "Wake Up" without that disastrous marketing-driven stuff in between.

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