Like any good veteran, Alanis Morissette knows the importance of trying to best the younger competition. On So-Called Chaos, she does something she rarely managed with previous producer Glen Ballard (and didn't do enough of on 2002's ''Under Rug Swept''): rein in her lyrical, vocal, and musical excesses. Within the first few tracks, we get two genuinely commanding, unobnoxious songs: ''Doth I Protest Too Much,'' in which she both dismisses and acknowledges the petty jealousies that consume her, and ''Out Is Through,'' about working to obliterate some of those problems. Straightforward and grippy, especially for her, these songs wipe away years of bleating vocals and production bombast. You can like them and not hate yourself in the morning.
But Morissette remains her own worst enemy. Those tunes out of the way, the quality starts heading south. Once more, her songs become little more than cloying ruminations (''Everything,'' a weak choice for a first single) or sarcastic harangues aimed at those who want to squash her individuality (''Spineless''). Exotic garnishes like sitars don't make them any more interesting. Morissette's habit of inverting words for the sake of -- well, who knows what? -- results in clumsy imagery like ''you make the knees of my bees weak.''
Her message also remains confused. In self-flagellating numbers like ''Eight Easy Steps'' (''How to hate women when you're supposed to be a feminist/How to play all pious when you're really a hypocrite''), she confesses to her failings and cops to rationalizing her behavior. Yet she still comes off as a tad unhinged, as if deep down she ultimately believes she's just fine, thanks. ''Fourteen years, 30 minutes, 15 seconds I've held this grudge,'' she sings at the start of ''This Grudge.'' Is she kidding? It's hard to say. For all of her so-called adulthood, Morissette manages to make the decade-younger Avril Lavigne sound pretty mature.