“There was an element of my wanting to absolve myself of certain things that I had been repressing for a long time,” Alanis Morissette said in 2002, at the time of Under Rug Swept’s release. “I had a tendency as a Canadian, as a woman, as someone from the family that I grew up in to focus singularly on the positive elements of this and not focus on some of the shadowy, darker stuff. And now I realise that including all of it makes the picture really whole.”
Listen to ‘Under Rug Swept’ here.
For Morissette to claim Under Rug Swept was focusing on the “shadowy, darker stuff” might have seemed surprising at the time. After all, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill had hardly been shy in pointing out the mess certain people left when they went away. But a close listen to the two albums reveals her to be absolutely right. Jagged Little Pill howls and thrashes with catharsis; Under Rug Swept is more precise, picking over the smashed glass, bleeding out all over again. “I know I won’t keep on playing the victim,” Morissette sings on Precious Illusions.
“Songwriting is an exercise in letting the unconscious out”
It had been four years since 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and, in that time, Morissette had struggled with songwriting. “I hadn’t been writing at all before I started this record, like for nine months or something – not in my journal, nothing,” she said at the time. “To me, writing is like talking with God. So whenever I stop, I feel a separation from myself, from joy.” When Morissette did start writing for Under Rug Swept, she was in Toronto, and it was stream-of-consciousness. Music and lyrics came at the same time. This is a technique she still values; in 2020, she said, “Songwriting is an exercise in letting the unconscious out. I live my whole life, then I take ten minutes to write the story of it.”
Hands Clean is the spine of the album, and gave the record its title. The almost-mellow pop melody and Morissette’s gentle, resigned voice is cover for truly disturbing lyrics. Morissette recalls an older man – perhaps the same Mr Duplicity of You Oughta Know – requesting silence for something. “Don’t go telling everybody,” she sings, quoting him, “and overlook this supposed crime.” Elsewhere in the song, the man taunts her about her talent and her weight. The song could be about sexual abuse or assault; it’s certainly about exploitation, victim-blaming and emotional cruelty. One of the best Alanis Morissette songs, Hands Clean is even more unsettling today, since #MeToo has left the world in no doubt as to how widespread abuse and harassment in the music industry was at that time.