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‘Under Rug Swept’: How Alanis Morissette Dared To Let The Sunlight In
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In Depth

‘Under Rug Swept’: How Alanis Morissette Dared To Let The Sunlight In

‘I’m still on an adventure, I’m still investigating,’ Alanis Morissette said of ‘Under Rug Swept’, an album that ‘makes the picture whole’.

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“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.

Other songs, such as the brilliant Flinch, focus on the destructive psychological power memories have, and That Particular Time is a subtle song about the breakdown of a relationship, each party unsure of what they want, the dynamic tilted, the future messy. Sometimes Morissette finds peace in her distress. Under Rug Swept’s opener, 21 Things I Want In A Lover, lists her preferred qualities (against capital punishment; generous of spirit) and Surrendering, the final track Morissette wrote for the album, is “about the gratitude that I feel for someone tapping into the courage that it takes to allow themselves to be loved and to drop the defences and fears”, she has said, “and how thrilling it is for me to be able to be let in that kind of way”.

“I’m still defining who I am in every moment.”

“I think my own growth is a means to the end of being of service to other people,” Morissette said of Under Rug Swept. “If you think of it that way, it makes so much sense, because oftentimes people have said, ‘What’s with the self-absorption?’ But I see that as Step One in a two-step process. The second step would be me being of value to other people’s lives and being able to share compassion in very tangible ways. And I can’t skip over Step One to get to Step Two, because then I’m giving from the empty cup, so to speak, and not giving from a cup that’s spilling over.” Her lyrics on the album, densely packed and voluble, often give the strong feel of syllables tumbling from her psyche.

Released on 25 February 2002 in the UK, and following the day after in the US, Under Rug Swept was the first Alanis Morissette album to be completely self-produced, with most of the instruments being played by her as well. Morissette also personally helmed the renegotiation of her contract with her label, Maverick, just prior to the album’s release. Discussions were lengthy and challenging, but – with the artist prepared not to release the record at all, if needs be – Morissette and Maverick came to an agreement. Hands Clean was the first single and a worldwide hit, with Under Rug Swept following soon after.

Two decades later, Under Rug Swept’s legacy is powerful. It speaks of daring to let the sunlight in on the darkness. And it would be an important waypoint in Morissette’s career. “I’m still on an adventure, I’m still investigating,” she said of this record. “I’m still defining who I am in every moment.”

Check out our best Alanis Morissette songs to find out which ‘Under Rug Swept’ track made the cut.

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