You may have heard this album referred to as Alanis’s ‘return to form’, but quite where she lost the plot is a matter of debate. If you’re one of the twenty-five million people who bought Jagged Little Pill but not its sprawling follow-up, it’s fairly safe to assume this isn’t for you. Having spent the last decade being all but dismissed by the music press as a peddler of hippy-drippy half-baked psychobabble, Morissette hasn’t suddenly dispensed with her trademark verbosity or love affair with Far Eastern instrumentation. Musically at least, it’s what’s been added not what’s been taken away. Drafting in electronica whizz Guy Sigsworth as co-writer and producer turns out to be as prudent a move as it is a surprising one for Morissette, giving Flavors Of Entanglement a freshness that her more recent material has sorely lacked.
Opener ‘Citizen Of The Planet’ continues the trend of kicking off her albums with the record’s most balls-to-the-wall rock track, this time stapled to an improbably immense concoction of tabla, drums, synth and heavy slabs of electric guitar. Oh, and ‘granulated cello’, which could well be an Alanis song title in itself. Referencing her parents’ French and Hungarian heritage and her Buddhist beliefs, it’s lyrically dense, if a little humourless (unless, like me, you initially mishear her shout out to Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, as “my president is Boney M”), but startling enough to signal the beginnings of something special. From there the album enters a remarkable electronica and thumping beat-laced three-song sequence that pulls the ear in all directions, from the poppy, singalong chorus of ‘Underneath’ with its Mahatma Gandhi philosophy couched in domestic deconstruction, to the wickedly dark ‘Versions Of Violence’ in which she gives her spookiest low vocal to date. Want Alanis you can dance to? Try the pulsing ‘Moratorium’ and the ridiculously catchy ‘Straitjacket’ complete with digital voice treatments.
If it seems a little ungracious for every Alanis review to hark back to that album, Flavors Of Entanglement, more than Under Rug Swept or So-Called Chaos at least, partly warrants the comparison, though Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is its closest musical relative. The bulk of the material here was written while Morissette was reeling from the break up of her most significant relationship to date and finds her alternating between fury and acceptance, desolation and a celebration of singledom. Ex-fiancé Ryan Reynolds may be all set to marry Scarlett Johansson these days (not, presumably, to be sung at) but Alanis isn’t done with dissecting what went wrong and every song here charts her recovery process. If ‘Underneath’ is relatively matter-of-fact in its inevitability, Morissette gives herself some space to rail against injustice in ‘Straitjacket’. “I don’t know who you’re talking to with such fucking disrespect,” she spits at one point. Elsewhere, Morissette gives the impression of a woman with an enormous capacity for forgiveness; ‘In Praise Of The Vulnerable Man’ is a gently addictive synth number that sees the goodness in the forest beyond the circle of burnt trees. So what if she’s contradicting herself? We all do when our hearts are broken.
Sidestepping the pitfalls of her recent ballads, ‘Not As We’ and ‘Torch’ provide Flavors Of Entanglement with its finest moments. The former finds her “reborn and shivering / spat out on new terrain”, accompanied only by Sigsworth on piano, with a voice tinged by sadness and hope as it skips across her upper register. The effect is bruising – we’ve all been there – though slightly spoilt by her assertion that she’s “faking it ‘til I’m pseudo making it”. Flavors… has a much lower body count than her recent work for writing impinged by mangled syntax and an excessively thumbed thesaurus (or perhaps it’s just masked by a glut of great melodies) but this one’s a floater. ‘Torch’ employs her well-established list-style songwriting, but in a good way like the enduring ‘Thank U’. It’s essentially a catalogue of things she misses about Reynolds, from the big things (“The thought of us bringing up our kids”) to the small (“To watch you love my dogs”).
Then there’s ‘Tapes’, which must surely rank among her best songs, grabbing snippets of the things a departing lover says, wounding excuses like “I’m too exhausting to be loved” and “You’d be better off without me” and swirling them around in a stirring arrangement of organ, piano, celesta, and strings on top of drums and unobtrusive electric guitar. It’s everything we weren’t expecting Alanis to come up with after years in relative wilderness. And she sounds fantastic, singing with a brand new clarity of purpose. If ‘Moratorium’ sees her shying away from the prospect of new relationships and ‘Giggling Again For No Reason’ finds her taking solace in the company of good friends, ‘Incomplete’ hints that it’s because she’s finally realised that being herself, by herself, is really not so bad. Musically it’s perhaps the album’s weakest link but who can begrudge her the sentiment, one that gives Flavors… a nice sense of closure?
Of course, diehard fans will want to purchase the deluxe edition with its bonus disc of five new songs, and for once it’s worth the extra expense. ‘Madness’ and ‘Orchid’ are two of Morissette’s most tender moments, the latter with the album’s most direct reference to her broken engagement: “Not yet arrested / and by that I mean betrothed / though at start I am duly courted / I’ve just not been trusted with altars”. ‘On The Tequila’, on the other hand, is just embarrassing, a song so cringeworthy that even famed boozer Lindsay Lohan would baulk at recording it. I’m all for making a case for Morissette as an under-regarded Renaissance woman of sorts, but Alanis as a good-time party girl? Oh no no. It’s great she’s bouncing back but this wretched song is far beneath her.
Dense and occasionally frustrating, Flavors Of Entanglement is nevertheless an instructive and rewarding addition to Morissette’s canon. Listen without prejudice.
[Maverick; June 2, 2008]