Venue: Brixton Academy, London
Reviewer: Phil W
Outside the doors, in large red letters, a sign informs passers-by the event inside has sold out. It has been for weeks. Inside an Australian dude is performing a solo set on the large stage, just him and his acoustic guitar. At first I write him off as derivative, but by halfway through his set he’s won the crowd over. He sings about convicts and fights and girls and heartbreak, his songs flexing between folk and rock n roll. His penultimate song is tender and delicate without sounding insincere or hollow, while his final number rocks with the aid of an overdrive pedal and punk riffs. In the centre of a break, his guitar howls with hollow feedback. He said his name a number of times but I never managed to catch it so you’ll have to trust me when I say it wasn’t bad at all*!
It’s been a while since Canadian icon Alanis Morissette graced our small island, even longer since she put out a relevant record. In 1995, in collaboration with veteran record producer Glenn Ballard, actress-turned-teen-pop-star Alanis Morissette went alt-rock and cut the biggest selling debut album by a female music artist ever… And according to the Recording Industry Association of America it still is, with upwards of 14 million copies of Jagged Little Pill sold in the US alone! Overnight a fame-shy 21 year old Alanis was made an international superstar, and the world either loved or hated her. The shows got bigger, the lights got brighter; fans praised her as the new voice of alt-rock, while critics labelled her a man-hating shrew and claimed Glenn Ballard as the genius behind her success. And what’s a girl to do? She escaped to India to collect her thoughts. She parted ways with Glenn Ballard, first lyrically and then musically to go it alone and prove the critics wrong. And she never put out another relevant record. She was entirely unable to follow up her debut, and alone couldn’t turn out the tunes that Ballard had honed into platinum singles. Worse than retirement, she became irrelevant.
Darkness on stage. Soft, purple lights make the stage glow as the backing band file on and begin in play. A slow ballad gets underway and Alanis performs the vocals to the first song off stage. I’m about to write her off from the start as over indulgent, then she storms onto the stage for the baroque tidal wave of Uninvited. By the time the band have surged into a superbly fresh sounding All I Really Want, Alanis bouncing across the stage and wailing her vocals to the stage floor with unexpected passion, microphone clasped in hand, I’m entirely won over. In fact at moments like these, Alanis may have perfected the art of time travel. I could have sworn it wasn’t 2008 at all; I was ready to declare the last 13 years of my life just an unlikely daydream I’ve just awoken from. It was 1995 and Alanis sounded as fresh and invigorating as she ever did! Over the next hour or so, Alanis performed virtually the entire Jagged Little Pill album; You Oughta Know, You Learn, Head Over Feet, Hand In My Pocket, they were all present and all sounded fantastic. During a particularly emotional rendition of Perfect, Alanis actually started to cry. I was unsure whether this was a good thing or not, but if nothing else, her passion and honesty for the songs was undisputed. Later cuts such as Thank U, Uninvited and 8 Easy Pieces also sounded great, and the rest of the set wasn’t bad, but there’s where the problems lay. The newer material wasn't bad, but the cuts from Jagged Little Pill were fantastic. An encore of Ironic was easily the high point of the night. I went home and put Jagged Little Pill back on my CD player, but I didn’t leave the gig with any ideas about bothering to buy the new album. The songs weren’t bad live and were performed admirably, but their lack of tunes and their complex and wordy vocals left little room for hooks or generally memorable new songs.
Alanis was and still is a mesmerising live performer with a unique voice few can effectively imitate - but since her 1995 debut, she just hasn’t had the tunes or hooks. 1998’s vast and underrated Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was an interesting listen, but later albums flexed between the boring and the nearly unlistenable. I was pleased she played so much of her debut but it felt unfortunate that the gig simultaneously highlighted her inability to follow up that record. As with many highly successful artists that make it big too fast, it was another case of too much too soon for Alanis. At 21 she’d made the album of her career and found herself with nowhere to go but down - the best alternative to simply continue to surf the perpetual wave of her Jagged Little Pill. In the end it’s a pill that Alanis seems to have found hard to either swallow or come down from. Briefly she was the music world’s brightest new star, seemingly with infinite potential; she’s now found herself irrelevant, a relic of another time. But every now and then we’ll get her out of the box, have a listen, and remember 1995. Like Liz Phair’s landmark debut Exile From Guyville, Jagged Little Pill is a record that still sounds as fresh today as the day it was recorded and Alanis could spend her life performing it and no-one would mind too much.
* A little bit of Googling reveals it to have been a man named Liam Gerner, dude! MMT. ;-)