Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill' Turns 20: Classic Track-by-Track Review
In 1995, there were plenty of angsty lady rockers with more rage and credibility than Alanis Morissette. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter hadn’t grown up playing basement punk shows or firing off feminist manifestos. Back home in Canada, she was known for the pair of dance-pop albums she released before graduating high school. Her parents weren’t even divorced.
But Morissette was no fraud. Jagged Little Pill, the era-defining international debut album she thrust upon the world 20 years ago on June 13, 1995, wasn’t some act of calculated alt-rock reinvention. Rather, it was a product of growing up. Alanis had been around the block, sung a few bubblegum tunes, and even dated a dude from Full House. It all left her wanting, and with her third album -- recorded in Los Angeles after she’d been dropped by her label -- Morissette decided to follow her gut and make music she could feel good about.
For the first time, this meant writing songs about feeling bad. Though drawn from personal experiences (bad relationships, career woes, adventures in Catholicism), Jagged Little Pill resonated. By November 1995, it had sold more than 2 million copies, topping the Billboard 200 and finding a mainstream audience that edgier female artists like Courtney Love and Liz Phair weren’t able to reach. This was precisely because of -- not despite -- Alanis’ past life in pop.
Jagged Little Pill isn’t a rock record. It’s grungy discomfort set to the kinds of tpp 40 hooks and backing tracks one gets working a guy like Glen Ballard, who Morissette met in 1994 and quickly took a liking to.
Pre-Pill, Ballard had produced artists like Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. With him co-writing and playing most of the instruments, there was zero chance of Alanis relocating to Alternative Nation. In terms of earnestness and emotional directness, Morissette made those Pearl Jam guys look like the cast of MTV’s The State, but that was OK. The ticked-off adolescent girls who constituted much of her audience weren’t necessarily looking for irony, and they didn’t require a spokesperson who even knew the meaning of the word.
This became apparent when “Ironic,” the disc’s famously irony-free third single, reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, continuing a hot streak that had begun with the gutsy scorned-woman rager “You Oughta Know” (long rumored to be about Dave “Uncle Joey” Coulier) and the more subdued, hopeful “Hand in My Pocket.” Two more smashes -- “You Learn” and “Head Over Feet” -- followed, making Jagged Little Pill one of those albums like Joshua Tree or Born In the U.S.A., where practically every track is a single, and they’re all pretty distinct.
Like those Bruce and U2 benchmarks, Jagged Little Pill today seems a bit dated. Still, Ballard’s drum machines and grunge-lite guitars (many preserved from the original demos) aren’t what anyone thinks about when they wax rhapsodic about this album. It was never meant to be hip or edgy, and 20 years later, it’s more meaningful for what it represents -- a smart young woman talking honestly about her feelings and finding herself as an artist -- than for how it sounds.
Read on for our track-by-track take on this, a record that earned five Grammys, sold millions and millions of copies, and gave its creator something to really freak out about: success.
“All I Really Want”: Harmonica, swirly guitars and canned drums clear the way for Alanis, who arrives at America’s doorstep with her sweater “on backwards and inside out.” It’s a fine entrance for a grunge-pop party crasher about to state her agenda. Morissette wants “intellectual intercourse” -- a mental connection with another angry, frustrated, frightened, uncomfortable soul—and that’s not the only thing on her wishlist. She’ll also take justice, comfort, common ground and none of your lip, thank you very much.
“You Oughta Know”: The second-best major-label debut single of the ‘90s, right after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” this gnashing kiss-off shocked listeners with its raw anger and frank portrayal of female sexuality. Turns out women get pissed off and horny just like men. Some even get freaky in movie theatres. This was no surprise to Flea and Dave Navarro of Red Hot Chili Peppers, who flesh out the Ballard demo and put scraping funk-rock to Alanis’ taunting indignation.
“Perfect”: Morissette has said her folks didn’t push her into showbiz, but she can obviously relate to children of stage moms and dads. This one has all the makings of a hammy PSA ballad, and yet Alanis rises above the pristine strumming with her reedy vocals. “I’ll live through you, I’ll make you what I never was,” she sings at 2:00, her voice a squeaky shriek as she puts herself in the shoes of an overbearing parent. Her performance is its own subtle rebellion against the notion of perfection.
“Hand In My Pocket”: A cataloging of contradictions set to fuzzy guitar and hella-‘90s drum machine, the album’s second single shows Morissette’s funny, self-effacing, hopeful side. “Everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine,” she sings, sincere enough to suggest she’s not crossing her fingers with that hand we can’t see. “Hand In My Pocket” is so good that Meredith Brooks basically jacked the formula a couple years later for “Bitch” -- a more dumbed-down and defensive call to be accepted as a woman who contains multitudes.
“Right Through You”: Even on this unmemorable filler track -- a nondescript grunge approximation reminiscent of Maverick labelmate Candlebox’s “Far Behind” -- Alanis gets in some choice lines. “You took a long, hard look at my ass,” she sings. “And then you played golf for a while.”
“Forgiven”: Alanis’ boss at Maverick, Madonna, must’ve dug the opening line: “You know how us Catholic girls can be / We make up for so much time a little too late.” As Alanis looks back at her religious upbringing, she sees the church as a patriarchal guilt factory that served a need she no longer feels. “We had to believe in something,” she sings. “So we did.”
“You Learn”: Another top 10 smash, this mid-tempo self-help rocker is another list song -- this one filled with tips for navigating the messy hoarder’s den that is life. Alanis’ advice: Ditch the fear, open your heart, speak your mind, and when the going gets tough, walk around the house naked.
“Head Over Feet”: Alanis knows she’s a handful, and that she’s not the type to get all gushy. “Don’t be surprised if I love you for all that you are,” she tells a guy who actually treats her right. He listens when she talks and asks her how her day was, and he’s probably fine with her calling in the middle of dinner. He’s the opposite of that “You Oughta Know” dude, and Morissette sings in a plainspoken manner suited to Ballard’s basic guitar-and-drum-box backing -- and the feeling of relief that has her buzzing.
“Mary Jane”: In 1993, Tom Petty had a hit with "Mary Jane's Last Dance," and in '94, the Spin Doctors dropped a single called “Mary Jane." Alanis’ '95 heroine is more like that Maria girl in Counting Crows’ “Round Here.” Over Ballard’s tense, ringing electric guitar, Morissette tries to reassure a friend who’s having a rough go of things. Perhaps Pill’s most potent deep cut, it’s a reminder that Alanis wasn’t completely in her own head, and she didn’t front like she was the only one with problems.
“Ironic”: Alanis might have been a little unclear on what irony means, but she knew how to choose her battles. Rather than argue that “rain on your wedding day” and “10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife” constitute “situational irony,” as some defenders have insisted, Morissette owned up to the gaff and stood by her song. And rightfully so, as her highest-charting Hot 100 hit is a funny shoulder shrug of a song about how life always screws you in the end.
“Not the Doctor”: With gnarlier guitars, this one would hit as hard as “You Oughta Know.” As it stands, the acoustic strumming and languid drum loop take the sting out of some needle-sharp lyrics. “I don’t want to be your mother,” Alanis tells some needy man-boy she’s sick of coddling. “I didn’t carry you in the womb for nine months.”
“Wake Up”: After 11 tracks of pouring her guts out, Morissette offers a summation. “There’s an underestimated and impatient little girl raising her hand,” she sings, programmed drums and washed-out guitars doing little to distract from the lyric. It’s another attack on some “trembling little boy” who’s not ready to experience pain or stray from the “path of least resistance.” He should listen to “You Learn.”