Nearly a decade after she brayed her way to global domination, Alanis Morissette is still a pervasive influence, even if her star has dimmed. Her acolytes are everywhere, far outnumbering disciples of other mid-’90s icons like Courtney Love and PJ Harvey. (In Love’s case, that lack of sway may be for the best, but that’s another story.) The Morissette pupils all work from the same template, so new to pop when she first emerged: a tempestuous, independent-minded thrasher who, deep down, is an utterly sentimental Lite FM softy, more quiet than riot grrrl.
Morissette’s most popular student has been Avril Lavigne, whose ”Complicated” felt like strung-together bits of Morissette songs. Lavigne took the Alanis formula one step further by insisting she was a mosh-pit regular despite a choir-practice voice and far-from-punk background. On Under My Skin, Lavigne has become even more, well, complicated. The bratty kiss-off ”He Wasn’t” revives the boardroom-approved mall punk of her 2002 debut, ”Let Go,” and she still serves up a ballad or two (”How Does It Feel,” a sequel of sorts to ”I’m With You”). But those songs are now anomalies. Lavigne has transformed into a dour teen who seems to have spent way too much time listening to Evanescence. The production and songwriting – courtesy of ex-Evanescence grunt Ben Moody and producers known for working with Linkin Park and Simple Plan – verge on nü-metal, as if Lavigne and her handlers decided she needed to go harder and heavier to stay current. Lavigne herself sounds more burdened; in song after song, the sk8erboi of the first album has turned out to be a selfish, nasty creep who leaves when she won’t go to bed with him (”Don’t Tell Me”) or treats her like crap (”Forgotten,” ”My Happy Ending”).
As contrived as the results can be, there’s no denying the level of craft at work. The combination of Lavigne’s chilly-siren alto, her collaborators’ songwriting canniness, and the processed production (very much the sound of modern pop, as Liz Phair can attest) can make for big-as-the-sky radio fodder like ”Fall to Pieces” and ”My Happy Ending.” Ultimately, the unrelenting sternness of the singer and the songs become a little tiresome. But there’s something grimly fascinating about ”Under My Skin.” Lurking beneath is a continual give-and-take between the girly Avril (the one who will ”clean my room when all else fails” and complains of her beau’s ”dumb friends”) and the humorless quasi grown-up heard elsewhere on the record. As much as Britney, she’s become a metaphor for the way in which kids truly do mature too fast.