My read of this song clicked in when I realised the title is ironic* – this is the flailing of someone who has no idea what they want. Every time “and all I really want” (or some variation) comes back, it feels like another thought occurring to her, something else to throw on the pile while we’re on the subject. The lyrics jump wildly from self-criticism to lashing out to fear to yearning to curiosity, veering from the personal to the universal, assisted by Morissette’s incredible performance that pushes on her old pop star persona until it shatters. She has allowed herself to be vulnerable, showing us all the emotions she’s feeling right now with complete sincerity, even the ones that contradict the other ones. This is backed up and occasionally fascinatingly contradicted by the music.
I was surprised to find that most people interpret the song as having very few chords (one read I saw was that the verses are done entirely on Bb), but when I went back and listened to the song again, I found that the instability I’d heard came not from the chord progression but from individual pieces of music that refused to settle down – most obviously, Morissette’s vocals that twist, turn, and keep trying to escape the music that grounds them, but also the guitar licks that seem to be asking the same question over and over. With the drums and bass providing a constant drive forward that accentuates the anxiety, only the harmonica seems to cheerfully float through.
(It’s almost the reverse of pico’s interpretation of “God Only Knows” – that song is unstable because it floats through an infinite universe while “All I Really Want” is unstable because it’s bouncing around a tiny space at high speed like a pinball)
The recurring theme through all of this is Morissette’s self-awareness over her fluidity. All these contradictory yet equally felt emotions make it impossible to choose what to do next, and she can’t tap down her anxiety, and she’s aware of the effect it has on people (even as she resents them for not sharing it). I find myself wondering what happened after this song, because each suggestion has the feel of pushing something in motion – to search for patience, a soul mate, intellectual intercourse, and common ground. In this respect, it’s a great choice for kicking off the album, because various songs on Jagged Little Pill are literally about these various things, providing a strange kind of payoff to this searching, anxiety-ridden little song.
*Yes, I am aware.