The negative reviews of Alanis Morissette's Havoc and Bright Lights are interesting examples of how we think about maturing pop and rock stars. Often, reviewers relegate these musicians to the has-been bin, dismissing them because of past successes rather than reflecting upon their growth beyond those successes. Of course, a reviewer has every right to not like Morissette's new record; it is just unfortunate that so many negative reviews cannot look at the album without dismissing it because it does not rehash the singer's breakout hit, Jagged Little Pill. Viewed on its own terms, Havoc is an interesting album because of it shows growth, while still focusing on Morissettes's favorite themes.
Following a busy, heavy-sounding break-up album (2008's Flavors of Entanglement), Morissette has chosen to produce warm and frothy music that balances folky ballads with soft electronics and bright radio pop with large guitar-driven choruses. The opener and first single, "Guardian," is the kind of hooky pop-rock that Morissette has written and performed with skill since the 90s. It also focuses on the singer's optimism and devotion as a caretaker--themes that have been present in her past work, but under-appreciated.
In fact, much of the album delves into familiar territory. "Woman Down" focuses on feminism and "Celebrity" criticizes--you guessed it--fame. Both songs show that Morissette can rail against ill-treatment and get angry. These, however, are not the best songs on the album.
The strongest material on Havoc finds the singer reflecting on her love and inner life--topics that have often yielded her best work. The standout track, "Empathy," acknowledges the compassion and understanding of loved ones (and perhaps even fans). "Lens," "Til You," and "Receive" are about the comforts and anxieties of domestic stability and commitment; these songs revel in a charming confessionalism that rarely gets embraced in our ironic age. And "Spiral"--perhaps the catchiest of the confessional tunes--deconstructs self-doubt to great success; not to mention, the chorus makes the song a pep-talk rather than the somber babble it could be.
Perhaps the lyric that best captures the album is in "Win and Win," when Morissette sings "In my old days someone won / Those were days of win-lose / In those bleak times I was better / I sat high looking down my nose / Change direction: looking up." The woman who was been both loved and vilified for allegedly being a man-hating rocker has moved past her youthful hurt. She is still strong, spiritual, questioning, and working to keep love in her life, but her attitude about these journeys has changed. These days, Alanis Morissette seems in love and grateful for how far she has come. She's still following her bliss and telling her listeners about it along the way, no matter what anyone thinks. That progress is what makes Havoc and Bright Lights such a compelling listen.