Twenty-five years ago, Alanis Morissette became an overnight superstar because she was jilted and angry and she thought the world ought to know. Now that she’s older, she seems to have reconciled some of her demons but the embers of her angst have been replaced with generalized anxiety and depression on Such Pretty Forks in the Road, which is her first record in eight years and ninth overall. If Such Pretty Forks is to be taken as autobiography, she’s now a middle-aged mother who suffers insomnia, recognizes her addictions, trips out on acid occasionally, and, after surviving some sort of nervous breakdown, has a firm grip on irony. Her lyrics are still sharp, and there’s plenty of drama and tension throughout, but unfortunately her cris de coeur don’t translate to catchy, cutting songs.
The best track here, “Reasons I Drink,” finds the onetime grunge-pop poster child taking stock of how she reached her midlife crisis — she’s been “working since [she] can remember, since [she] was single digits,” and she doesn’t know how to define her limitations — and she details her addictions over a jaunty, upbeat piano line. None of it is particularly hummable, but you feel for her when she sings, “Nothing can give me a break from this torture.” She spends much of the rest of the record in that feeling of purgatory.
On the opening number, “Smiling,” she revisits the contemplative vibe of “Uninvited” to narrate her “life of extremes” and “the anatomy of [her] crash.” But the feeling quickly transitions to adult-contempo schmaltz, and she dwells in the sort of soft-rock twilight zone that her Nineties recordings seemed to rebel against. And she stays in that realm for much of the rest of the record. So while she has caustic observations (“You see the figure skater, I fear the ice is thin,” she sings on “Missing the Miracle”), they’re often buried in plinky, rhythm-less, new agey soundscapes that have more in common with that other Nineties music juggernaut, Windham Hill, than the sounds people summon when they think of her.
Her personal revelations about “the end of Superwoman-ing” on the insomniac rumination “Losing the Plot” sound ironically sleepy. She picks apart a litany of ways she’s been wronged on “Reckoning,” even describing her death in the third verse — but it’s a gentle reckoning with acoustic guitars and strings. And on “Her,” she sings of being on her kitchen floor, wanting to reach out for help over a warm piano line. For all the emotion she pours into crafting her stories, her songs seem to blur together. The record’s most interesting tale — the final tune, “Pedestal,” which could double as “You Oughta Know, Part Two,” since she curses a friend or ex who climbed the social ladder by dropping her name — might be too gentle to raise the eyebrows of the person she’s skewering. For all of its melancholy, Such Pretty Forks feels personal but never profound.