By Ken Tucker
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Alanis Morissette gets more out of repetition than any other white non-hip-hop pop-music performer around, and by that I don’t mean the royalties from the, oh, 3 billion times all her various Jagged Little Pill hit singles have been played on the radio. The prevailing songwriting strategy in her new collection, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, is to reiterate phrases over and over with always varying degrees of emphasis and interpretation. It’s one variation on a hook — not as standard as rhyming and alternating verse-chorus-verse — but Morissette is into discursiveness these days, even as she’s intent on getting your toes tapping.

Take, for instance, ”Thank U,” the album’s first single, with its unrhymed lists of ”How ’bout”s (”How ’bout getting off these antibiotics/How ’bout stopping eating when I’m full up”) and ”Thank you”s (”Thank you India/Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment”). The structure creates an immediate catchiness, underpinned and emphasized by Gary Novak’s hypnotic drum pattern. ”Thank U,” with its positive sentiments tucked inside a crystalline melody like a message in a bottle, is a terrific single. And, released prior to the album, the song turns out to have been apt preparation for much more of the same on this 17-track, repetition-loving therapy session from Canada’s musical equivalent to an episode of Felicity.

Which, believe it or not, I mean as a compliment. Those of us with receding hairlines find it all too easy to scoff at the self-absorption and melodramatic misery that characterize a good part of adolescence, but that doesn’t make adolescent misery any less painful, or its depiction in works of popular art any less of a challenge to capture honestly and vividly. Morissette, though now a doughty 24, does this sort of thing awfully well — amazingly well, considering the pressure she must have felt after selling 16 million-plus copies of Pill and accruing a level of fame that must take you out of the adolescent state of mind real fast. My favorite example of Morissette’s ongoing teen-angst urgency on Infatuation Junkie is ”Are You Still Mad.” It’s another list song, this one a catalog of all the aggressive things Alanis did to a former loved one. ”Are you still mad I wore the pants most of the time?/Are you still mad that I seemed to focus only on your potential?” she coos with intentional winsomeness, only to deliver the wise, coiled-anger answer-refrain herself: ”Of course you are.” Clear message to Former Loved One: Tough beans, jerk-o.

Morissette knows the ins and outs of romantic ups and downs as well as any contemporary hitmaker. But where Pill was about cathartic rage — songs whose emotions served as metaphors for the furious effort it took for her to burst free of teenage-idol status (bopper albums and a role on Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television) — this new work is more like You Can’t Do That on CD: Indulge that breakthrough to explore a newfound sense of self, to continue to face down old fears of abuse and domination (”Sympathetic Character,” ”I Was Hoping,” and especially ”The Couch”), and do it at a languid pace that allows for a maximum amount of her distinctive style of wailing.

What’s missing too often over the long haul of 17 songs, however, are tunes that measure up to Morissette’s verbosity and elastic-ecstatic vocals. As on Jagged Little Pill, she’s collaborating with producer Glen Ballard, but the sound is very different. Instead of the slow-building grand climaxes that characterized hits like ”You Oughta Know” and ”You Learn,” the songs on Infatuation Junkie tend to settle into polyrhythmic grooves and stay there, providing melody lines just serviceable enough to carry along all of Morissette’s Zen chattiness. It’s an audacious move, one that anyone predisposed to dislike her will find tedious — proof that she’s a navel-gazing twit.

I’d counter that Morissette has used her year-plus recording hiatus and newfound star status wisely, in pursuit of a way to make a vulnerable, openhearted album in the face of intense commercial expectations. With her deep-breath-long lines and persistent chanting (”Because we can’t not/ Because we can’t not/Because we can’t not help laugh at underestimations…”), she reminds me, oddly enough, of the poet Allen Ginsberg, deploying willed innocence as a strategy to achieve emotional truths accessible to anyone with ears wide open enough to hear them. B+

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie

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