Alanis Morissette certainly likes to ask questions as a songwriter. Remember how she first caught our attention in the spiteful 1995 hit, "You Oughta Know," by asking a former lover whether he thinks of her when he's making love (not exactly the term she used) to another woman?
In the opening track on her latest album, the Canadian singer-songwriter may well set a North American record for the number of questions in a single song. In "21 Things I Want in a Lover," she asks prospective suitors everything from whether they "derive joy when someone else succeeds" to if they are uninhibited in bed.
So, it only seemed fitting that we posed our own question during Morissette's concert Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre: Does this 27-year-old still rank as one of pop's most commanding figures despite the creative misfires in her latest album?
The answer was fast and convincing in her 90-minute performance.
Morissette and a spectacular five-piece band, driven by drummer Blair Sinta, played with energy and force. Their sheer intensity made the weaker songs in "Under Rug Swept" seem less marginal and the intensity lifted the better songs from this and earlier albums to an even higher level.
Whether joining the band on electric guitar or simply prowling the stage with the microphone in hand, Morissette has evolved into a striking performer who conveys the often raw emotions of her songs with the authority of a correspondent coming back from the battlefield. The dispatches deal chiefly with the struggle against troubled relationships, disillusionment and low self-esteem.
She's not a concise writer, often allowing the lyrics to come across as a laundry list of complaints and/or conflicting images. But when Morissette hits a groove, she shows why she helped break down the commercial pop barriers in the '90s that had long tended to force female singer-songwriters into a secondary role.
Not only do the images in such songs as "Uninvited," "Thank U" and "That Particular Time" feel fresh and alluring, but the songs' melodies, too, have a soaring, graceful quality.
As a singer, Morissette can be shrill, which leads to complaints that she's whiny. Generally, however, she matches the purity of the music with a style that is at once passionate and conversational, making it easy to sing along.
For all the talk about her being a malcontent, there is an underlying optimism and faith in her music that offers the reassurance that we can find strength from life's most difficult encounters.
The main question you might have asked of opening act Ryan Adams was whether that was really him on stage. Adams is a marvelous songwriter who is equally effective as a rock 'n' roller or in the more sensitive singer-songwriter mode.
Because he normally does two-hour shows, he chose to emphasize only his "bad boy" rock 'n' roll side in the limited, hourlong set Friday. To add to the rebellious aura, he played in virtual darkness.
For someone who is into his music, it was a good-natured bit of rock rebellion, but for those who were new to Adams, they must have wondered what the heck was going on. Regardless, the music itself, including "Rescue Me" and "Nobody Girl," offered up rootsy, Rolling Stones-type rock with invigorating tenacity. When he mixes the sensitive side in the two-hour set, however, he is an even more invaluable young talent.