Abate! In the Name of Love
By Phil Dellio
Not too long after Laura Nyro died last year, Greil Marcus wrote a column (in Interview, probably, or maybe I'm remembering one small section in something he wrote elsewhere) lampooning not so much Nyro herself but the writers who were treating her death as a major story on the order of Marvin Gaye's or, more recently, Dusty Springfield's. Nyro's death did register with me at the time, solely because she wrote the 5th Dimension's "Wedding Bell Blues," on my shortlist of greatest singles ever. She wrote some other moderately famous hit singles for other people, none of which comes anywhere close to "Wedding Bell Blues." I don't own and have never heard any of her own albums.
Marcus's assessment of Nyro's importance seemed brutal coming so soon after her death (within a few weeks, I recall), but--thank you, Alanis Morissette--I can appreciate his exasperation. Rightly or wrongly, Morissette has come to embody for me the preciousness and unwieldy crimes-against-syllabication that I've always associated with all those Nyro albums I've never heard, or with Dory Previn, a contemporary of hers I've never heard either. From John Swenson's entry on Previn in the first Rolling Stone record guide: "a talented and somewhat overbearing and verbose songwriter with a horrible voice." I wish I had owned the copyright on those words when Jagged Little Pill came out.
Morissette's current single, "Unsent," is the first thing she's done that I don't immediately switch off when it comes over the car radio. It's exceptionally pretty--not the first good melody she's written (there was "Ironic," for one), but the first that she doesn't at least half-ruin with her yelping and caterwauling. If I tune out the lyrics and treat it as background, I'll happily stay with "Unsent" all the way through. But oh those words...
Things are generally OK through verse number-one, the Dear Matthew verse. Alanis wants Matt to come visit her in California once he's finished with his current girlfriend. She wants to spend some time with him--actually, she's "open to spending time" with him. That's the first warning-bell: I've written before about how I like equivocation in pop music, but one of the many good things about the Stooges was that they never wrote a song called "I'm Open to Being Your Dog."
Next up is the Dear Jonathan verse, and that one's pretty safe too. "Whenever I think of the early '90s" is a great line. Whenever I think of the early '90s myself, I think of Right Said Fred, the dancing midget from Twin Peaks, and Juan Guzman's unlimited potential. I never knew Jonathan, else maybe I'd think of him too.
After that, all manner of writerly hell starts to break loose. In the Dear Terrance verse alone, there's "muchly," "emotionally available," "nurturing," "consummately," and the very un-Bo-Diddleyish "you were the best platform from which to jump beyond myself." I don't know if "muchly"'s an actual word or not, but it shouldn't be. As Winston Churchill famously said, that is the kind of nonsense up with which we needn't put.
Dear Marcus and Dear Lou are good for "charismatic," "spirituality," "tumultuous," and "whereabouts." There's nothing wrong with any of those words, but by this point I'm wondering whether Alanis should even be allowed to use "seriously," "because," or "looked." The song ends there and it's time to say goodbye. Here's your platform from which to jump, what's your hurry?
I'm sure there'll be more of this kind of thing from Morissette in the future, not less. With that in mind, I've made up a list of 75 words (I set out to come up with 100 but got tired) that I think she ought to work into her next few albums. Morissette's fondness for writing songs that are structured like lists has been pointed out by many, so a list of words meant for future list-songs seems appropriate. I've tried to stay within the realm of possibility, words that I sense Alanis wouldn't think twice about putting to music--I've avoided things like "diadromous" and "pseudepigraphon" where I know her internal censor will do the right thing. These are instead words that you don't give a second thought to when you run up against them in print, even if very few you'd feel comfortable dropping into a conversation with your dad. Any one of them could stop a song dead. And that'll be the really fun thing about future Alanis singles, seeing how she navigates her way in and around and between words like the ones listed below. It'll be just like watching The Deer Hunter.
Dear Alanis: delineate, normative, perpetuity, sanguine, circuitous, environs, transgressive, henceforth, explicate, isometric, fiduciary, heuristic, imbue, lugubrious, jaundiced, calibrate, importune, vitiate, cavil, lacuna, interdisciplinary, daresay, untrammelled, titular, autodidactic, bibliophile, misbegotten, propensity, sententious, marginalize, firmament, gentrification, recidivist, excoriate, incremental, transmogrify, abate, umbrage, taciturn, fealty, oleaginous, nullify, interpolate, whichsoever, concomitant, syllogism, dissemble, expurgate, quiddity, augment, compendium, obfuscate, vertiginous, adduce, problematic, forfeiture, gainsay, hagiography, recalcitrant, notwithstanding, meritocracy, surfeit, neophyte, jocularity, ameliorate, polemicize, recuse (I'm not sure which scandal-trial it was that made me a big fan of "recuse"; Alanis could have one of those tumultuous relationships and recuse herself), myopic, colloquy, erudition, glean, paradigmatic, apostate, mollify, predilection.
I'm taking daily-double bets on "predilection"/"propensity": somewhere along the way, Alanis will dismiss someone from her life because of his predilections or propensities. "Reciprocity" would have been on the list, but Lauryn Hill got there first.
(This article originally appeared in Popped.)