Song Analysis – “London” by Alanis Morissette

In 2011, I considered writing a short e-book analyzing selected Alanis Morissette lyrics as a “fun” project and also as a way to examine the work of an artist who had experienced much commercial success but little critical appreciation. At the time, I prepared a couple of in-depth analyses of Morissette compositions, one of which was for a little-known song titled “London.” While the idea for an Alanis monograph languished (though I may complete it in the future), the 2015 release of the Jagged Little Pill – Deluxe Edition reminded me of the notes I’d made, as the Jagged re-release included the previously unreleased studio recording of “London.” After some revisions, I’ve opted to publish the analysis for “London” as a single blog post, as it seems to be an appropriate time to reconsider this once obscure composition in Morissette’s catalogue.

London

Bougainvilleas fall into the pool
The hard shell’d bugs bite my forearm
My right index fingernail chewed to the quick
My cervix is alarmed, scared even

My sprinklers go off at 6 PM each day
And sometimes they spray unsuspecting visitors
My pimples are gooses all over my legs
My brow is furrowed and my vision is blurred

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

The birds make guttural sounds and protect me
My friends come to visit and love me a lot
I don’t have the energy to fill them in
I am lagged by the jet and the 12-hour flight

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

I am intrigued by the boy with the androgynous songs
Sometimes they rhyme sometimes they rhyme not
The steam will smell of eucalyptus in the shower
The hug will feel forced upon you, you inconsolable thing

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

Deep breaths will not make my brain stand still
To be loved and swallowed or single and depraved
I love speaking French to the taxi drivers
We slept and were cold on the train out of France

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

Note: Official lyrics state “A hard shell’d bugs” instead of “The hard shell’d bugs” in error; this has been corrected.  The officially published lyrics also put the first two verses into one 8 line stanza; I have separated them into two separate 4 line stanzas for the purposes of this analysis.

London  – analysis

Until a demo recording of the song was released on the 2015 Deluxe Edition of Jagged Little Pill, “London” was one of Morissette’s relative rarities. The song was first performed live in concert in 1997, and doesn’t appear to have been played since. Morissette included the composition in her acoustic sets at the Tibetan Freedom Concert as well as the Bridge School Benefit from that year.

Prior to the release of the studio version, a live recording from the Bridge School Benefit was released in the spring of 1999. The singles “Unsent,” “Joining You,” and “So Pure” were commercially released in North America, Europe and Japan, respectively; the live version of “London” appeared as a b-side on each of these releases.

I’ve selected this song for analysis because, despite its relative obscurity in Morissette’s catalogue of songs, I argue that it remains one of her more complex narratives in a song, and is under-appreciated for its uniqueness and skill in how it conveys its storyline. The lyrics work against any expectations set by the title, for despite being called “London,” with a refrain that repeats “how I do love London,” the song never actually makes any specific references to London in the verses.  “London,” in this case, not only refers to the place, but something that happened in that place which the speaker never fully reveals, but hints at throughout the lyrics.

The beginning of the song describes the sight of flowers, specifically bougainvilleas, falling into a pool. Bougainvilleas are native to areas of the world warmer than London, such as Brazil or the American Southwest; this detail is the first hint that in spite of the song’s title and the speaker’s descriptions of her environment, she is not necessarily located in London itself. The next two verses refer to lawn sprinklers and friends coming to visit the speaker, who says she is jet lagged. In this context, it would appear that the speaker of the song is referring to flowers falling into her swimming pool, and that she is at home after travelling.

Aside from these lines that suggest that the speaker is not actually in London as she ruminates and observes, she also begins to offer descriptions of her physicality that suggest anxiousness and discomfort. She has been biting her fingernails, and she is being bitten by insects; she has goose bumps on her legs, either from a chill in the air or from strong emotions she is experiencing, and relates that her cervix is “alarmed.”  Her furrowed brow and blurred vision suggest that she is pensive and perhaps weeping; her perception of her present state and surroundings are compromised by her vision, which as we learn in subsequent verses, is fixed on another moment in time.

Inanimate objects and elements, insects and animals, and even isolated parts of the body are used as vehicles through which she can express her own emotions and state of being. In the first two verses, water appears via the pool, sprinkler, and possible tears. The pool, coupled with the flower that falls into it, could be said to be typical “feminine” symbols; in contrast, the sprinklers that line her property and spring to attack “unsuspecting visitors” would seem almost masculine. Unlike the armoured insects that attack her, the speaker appears to be physically and emotionally exposed. Birds nearby appear to be more sympathetic than the insects, “protecting” her and perhaps warding off unwanted visitors with their gutturals. Although it is not immediately clear why the speaker is experiencing genital anxiety, the mention of female genitalia in this manner, along with the image of the drowning flower, suggest a vulnerability which is reinforced by the later mentioning of fatigue and protective friends and animals. At the mention of her friends, the speaker relates that she is too tired to “fill them in,” indicating that she possesses some information related to her travels that could explain her current mental state.

After three verses of the speaker detailing her present circumstance, she shifts to a verse where there is some uncertainty about the timeline. Who is the boy with the “androgynous” songs? Is he the romantic partner she is thinking about as she recalls travelling in Europe? Is he merely a street performer she encountered on her journey? Or is he someone she experiences in her “present” while at home, either in person or from a recording? This is left as ambiguous as the craft of the mysterious male performer. Her mention of this male musician is immediately followed by more sensory information; the smell of steam in the shower could potentially evoke memories tied to the speaker’s excursions to London and France, or to the lost love that the song implicitly refers to. Whether the male singer appears to her as a recollection or is among the friends who visit and support her, his performance continues to spur associations and thoughts that prevent her from stilling her emotions, as she indicates in the final verse when describing the futility of deep breath (and possibly meditation).

The fourth verse shifts into the future tense as the speaker contemplates what she thinks she will sense and feel; it would seem that the speaker anticipates that the vulnerability she has been describing will persist. This verse also features a switch to the pronoun “you,” the only instance of such in the song. This could be interpreted as the speaker directly addressing the lost love object, but the “inconsolable thing,” too delicate to accept even an embrace from another, seems consistent with the vulnerability ascribed to the speaker thus far in the song. Therefore, it is likely that the speaker is suddenly addressing herself, either gently mocking her own acute sensitivity, or empathizing with it—or both.

After reiterating her love of London, the speaker remarks that she is unable to quell her thoughts, despite her attempts to relax. She then poses the question: “to be loved and swallowed, or single and depraved?” This is the most obvious indication that the source of associational leaps from place to place, and from present to past and future, is related to the issue of interpersonal relationships. The construction of this line suggests a dilemma: the security of being loved in a relationship comes with the consequence of losing one’s individuality, whereas preserving one’s independence from romantic liaisons allows for the implied “wickedness and perversion” of more casual sexual relations—but at the cost of a sustained personal connection. The speaker’s contemplation of being “loved and swallowed or single and depraved” perhaps relates to the speaker’s genital anxiety from the first verse, and the suggestion of being “swallowed” by romantic love evokes the earlier image of the flower being subsumed.

The final verse ends with the singer remarking that she enjoys “speaking French to the taxi drivers,” and relates an episode of leaving France via train with a companion or companions. The final line of the last verse is the only use of the pronoun “we” in the song. Her use of “we” is also accompanied by the sensation of being cold, a link to her earlier experience of goose bumps as she recalls her travels while alone at home. In context of the overall song, it appears that the speaker is travelling from France to London. While the speaker is charmed by speaking in another language while taking quick jaunts by taxi, her reference to extended travel via train is associated with coldness and sleep, much like her experience of travel by plane is associated with feelings of fatigue and displacement. The sole use of the inclusive “we” in the lyric, which possibly includes a romantic partner, is within a context that lacks warmth and active engagement with other individuals. The final line also shifts into the past tense for the first time, definitively placing an event in the past at the same time she uses the pronoun “we,” which is never included in the speaker’s present tense contemplation.

What actually happened once the speaker arrived in London is never described, but it can be inferred that the song is essentially about lost love. The lyric communicates this in a relatively subtle manner, compared to most popular songs concerned with the same subject. The descriptions of the speaker’s bodily experience, in relation to her loss, communicate her distress and unhappiness to the audience in ways that don’t resort to melodrama. The narrative is also non-linear; the song does not begin with travel in London, proceed with details of a romantic break-up, and conclude with an aftermath once the protagonist arrives home; instead, Morissette reverses the “beginning” and “end” of the events she describes in her narrative, so that the character is first presented at home and alone, but finishes recalling herself and her lover on the train just before they arrive in London, and presumably end their relationship. Specific reference to a romantic breakup are left out, requiring the listener/reader to examine the lyrics more closely in order to truly understand what the narrator is relating and why. As a song named after a cosmopolitan city that reiterates the speaker’s love for it, the refrain would seem to assert the speaker’s love of the physical place in spite of the complex emotions and upsetting experiences she associates with it.

The language used in “London” is fairly straightforward and prosaic when analyzed on the page. That said, it is largely free of clichés, with the exception of expressions like “chewed to the quick” or the references to a “furrowed brow” and “blurred vision.” There is some language play with familiar phrasing, such as “my pimples are gooses all over my legs” to describe goose bumps, as well as saying “I am lagged by the jet and the 12 hour flight” instead of simply evoking the usual phrase “I’m jet lagged.” With the former, the reversal of the words “goose” and “pimples” in the line changes the perception of what is being described; the immediate stress on “pimples” creates a somewhat revolting image when the audience imagines the speaker’s legs with pimples “all over,” subtly creating a sense of discomfort in the listener that mirrors that of the speaker in the song. With the latter example, the speaker’s phrasing prioritizes the word “lagged” so that she can state that she is not only experiencing fatigue from the shift of time zones, but from the duration of her travel time. Her stress on the word “lagged” also relates directly to the very nature of the narrative she is structuring, for her descriptions of her present state are a result of emotions that have lingered from her recent travel.

The complexity of ”London” is not so much in the language, which is simple and to the point at the level of the individual line, but in its narrative structure. Despite shifts in chronology as well as the mixture of the speaker’s contemplative thought, physical descriptions and recollections, the song still coheres as an overall lyric, making it unusual among popular songs. “London” prefigures Morissette’s strategy in later compositions “The Couch” and “Hands Clean,” where shifts in narrative voice occur in addition to shifts in time and place. While a song like “The Couch” seemed experimental at the time of its release on 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, “Hands Clean” became a mainstream hit for Morissette upon its release in 2002, despite its unconventional structural and narrative approach, not to mention subject matter.

In both the studio and live recordings of “London,” the arrangement is a simple acoustic affair with guitar, bass and percussion. The standout instrument in the performances is Morissette’s vocal; while the vocals in each official recording can at times have a harsh or raw quality, Morissette’s singing nonetheless elaborates on the sense of melancholy communicated by the lyrics. Morissette’s singing on Jagged Little Pill (her only worldwide album release at the time “London” was composed and performed) was somewhat affected relative to her subsequent releases, where she settled more comfortably into her own unique style and identity as a singer. As such, “London” was a precursor to Morissette’s more mature interpretive abilities that would appear on her Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie release in 1998. The song is also an example of the shift in approach between the two records, as most of Jagged Little Pill avoided more overtly melancholic expression in both songwriting and singing, whereas the 1998 album explored a greater range of moods. From the more aggressive persona on Jagged Little Pill songs about love and relationships such as “You Oughta Know” or “Not The Doctor,” Morissette segued into a style of writing and singing on “London” that is less guarded around feelings of vulnerability and sadness with respect to romantic love.

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