Happy 20th Anniversary to Alanis Morissette’s fourth studio album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, originally released November 3, 1998.
The follow up. That daunting creative endeavor following one’s creative or commercial apex (and in most instances both). It can paralyze one artist and energize another. There can be the temptation (often by label bosses) to produce a carbon copy to repeat the success and cash in (once again). Or there can be the desire to take a complete left turn creatively and challenge the perception of who you are as an artist or group.
For Alanis Morissette, the worldwide behemoth that was 1995’s Jagged Little Pill and its sixteen million in sales at the time (now holding at around thirty-three million copies) cast a large shadow. It also penned her in as the angst-ridden, jilted lover who wore her broken heart on her album sleeve.
So whilst record executives clamored for a quick paint-by-numbers follow-up, Morissette took three years to release the successor that would simultaneously meet and defy expectations.
With a keen sense of humor, Morissette took a dig at her media created persona, entitling the new effort Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. And true to form, or rather true to herself, she presented an album with lyrical honesty and intimacy. The boiling angst might have mellowed, but the passion was still there.
Morissette the singer-songwriter had also matured. Her lyrics were still wildly personal and introspective but they also had space for the listener to identify with. The production and instrumentation on the album also feels broader, in their melding of hip-hop inspired beats with searing guitars and eastern flavored melodies with grand pop sensibilities.
Songs like album opener “Front Row” show the bold steps Morissette was taking with an almost spoken word lyric that wanders freely through the bare resemblance of a standard melody or structure. She is less concerned with rhyming couplets and more focused on true expression. “Front Row” is like a trippy transplant into Morissette’s innermost thoughts and reflections, with production that swirls, disorientates and collides. And the result is riveting.
Reflecting on her commercial journey and the rebalancing spiritual one that followed, songs like the amped-up and rocking “Baba” and the acoustically sweet “UR” hold a mirror up to the public image and the personal self.
Lead single “Thank U” with its abundance of gratitude, love and inspiration has Morissette in a state of appreciation for the positive and negative swirling in her life. Her candor in lines like, “How ‘bout not blaming you for everything” and “How ‘bout not equating death with stopping” talk to broader themes than some of her painfully personal Jagged Little Pill content.
And that’s what we have in Former, an artist who has gone through some stuff, both good and bad, and has come out the other side better for it. Someone with a worldlier view who can paint broad strokes yet fill them still with intricate details.
This is true in the brooding “Sympathetic Character” with its stark fear of abuse that seems to scream with greater reverberation in today’s #MeToo times. By opening herself up, she allows you to reflect on her lyrics as they pertain to your own life, while comforting and empowering you in the process.
Filled to the brim with seventy-two minutes of exploration through seventeen songs, the album can at times feel overly testing for a single listening. There are so many shades, so many colors that songs like “Heart of the House,” “Can’t Not” or “The Couch” can sometimes get lost in the punching highs of the album or the immensely powerful quiet moments.
And there’s so much to explore. Dive into the hypnotic sonics of “I Was Hoping” with its revolving lyrical melody. Breathe in the heartache and heartbreak of “Unsent” with its longing and loving reflections, and try not to feel it. Or revel in the unexpected jubilance of the hyper “So Pure” and its drawn out titular callout. Take the haunting destruction of a relationship as outlined in “Are You Still Mad?” and the brutal honesty within.
Perhaps the most insightful song on the album (of overly insightful songs) is the wistful “That I Would Be Good.” Dealing with the pressures of day-to-day living, relationships, oh and global success, the song outlines the factors that shape, refrain and condemn us.
With her sweet voice against a stark electric guitar and slow burn beat, Morissette sings of ultimate acceptance, flipping judgement calls into things to be okay about. “That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds” she sings, “That I would be great if I was no longer Queen.” “That I would be loved even when I was fuming.” And perhaps refuting the characterization of the album’s title, “That I would be good even with or without you.”
There is an authenticity at play here that was lacking in a lot of the music of the mid to late ‘90s. A low hum accompanies the track giving the song a demo-like feel and the struggling, and certainly not perfect, breathy flute solo shows an artist embracing feel over polish. And perhaps the whole album’s theme is in the ultimate acceptance within the looming shadow of the follow up to Jagged Little Pill present in the subtle yet powerful line, “That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down.”
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is a multifaceted album from a multifaceted artist. And while it may not have been the blockbuster of its predecessor, for me, it’s a stronger, braver, bolder album. And ultimately more rewarding. Whilst I enjoy Jagged Little Pill—and it must be said the rich catalogue of albums that followed and continue to this day (seriously, check out Havoc and Bright Lights)—when it comes to the album that truly defines Alanis Morissette, this is the one that trumps all others.