Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Hm.
This is a weird one. Not because the song itself is weird, or anything, but is this really the number song in America? Is it a bad song? Not at all, but “Somebody That I Used To Know” isn’t what I think of when I think number one hit.
Nor is it’s singer/writer/performer Gotye. He’s become kind of a big name in Australian indie circles, and “Somebody That I Used To Know” is so far his only international hit. And somewhat like other left-field hit-makers fun., the song’s been something of a sleeper hit; it was released last July. It started charting in America in January, and has slowly worked it’s way to number 1 over the course of the year. Well, let’s take a look.
I’ll be honest, the first time I heard this song, I thought it was some dusty 60s gem that I’d just somehow missed. The production sounds absolutely nothing like what’d you expect to get popular; the warm, uncompressed sound of “Somebody That I Used To Know” emulates vintage production without any of that era’s murkiness. Set in D minor (the saddest of keys), the song’s built on a basic two-chord riff and a xylophone hook. During the verses, I admit it’s pretty minimalist, but that way, the song can focus on what Gotye is saying.
“Now and then I think of when we were together/like when you said you were so happy you could die”
Sorry, Gotye, could you speak up? Open your mouth a little more, maybe? Or here, let me get a lyrics sheet…
“Told myself that you were right for me/but I felt so lonely in your company/but that was love, and it’s an ache I can still remember“ Well, that’s good and sad. Also, I can’t really pick on any of the lyrics here; like most of the other non-pop radio oriented Radio Rant songs, it’s pretty lyrically airtight. At the same time, though, the sedate instrumentation and Gotye’s quiet performance makes the first minute and a half of this song drag by.
All of that goes out the window at the chorus, though. Gotye kicks the volume (and his range) way up for his best Sting impression, but it works. The lyrics get a little uneven, but hell, even that makes the chorus stick more, and more fun to sing along with. The music picks up, too; the bass kicks a little harder, there’s some flanged guitar, and the overall texture of the song is great.
Then comes Kimbra’s verse. Out of the two of them, Kimbra’s much more singing-Native-American-tribal-chants-backward-through-her-vocoder-while-playing-the-electric-cello avant garde than Gotye, but she keeps the weirdness under wraps here. Instead, she starts with one of the most stinging lines of the song.
“Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over/part of me believing it was always something that I’d done”
Even with the good chorus, Kimbra’s verse is, for me, where the song gets interesting. We see it all the time in bitter break-up songs; the dumped party essentially spends the song saying “Well fine, then!” and proceeds to play the victim to the cruelty of the dumper. However, in “Somebody That I Used To Know”, the other person does come in, and essentially telling Gotye that he was a crummy partner, too, and still being difficult after the relationship’s done.
It pays off because the music under Kimbra is constantly building back into the final chorus, where Gotye sounds much fuller, and with Kimbra provided backing vocals. The music doesn’t do much that’s different from earlier; there’s no big cathartic moment, but the strength of the performers carries the song from the final chorus to the outro pretty well. It’s a surprisingly expressive and fairly moving bit of music, and what ultimately makes the song worth it, to me.
And because “Somebody That I Used To Know” has a big Glee Factor that pushed it from no. 5 to no. 1, I guess I should speak a moment on that. As far as Glee covers go, it’s probably one of the better ones that I’ve heard, but feels awkward. The show spent a lot of time getting the unpolished, slightly psychedelic feel of the instrumentation right, but the actual performers are so overproduced that the two clash. Overall, pretty eh.
I think higher of the original, but not as much as I’d like. I think it has a great, absolutely interesting second half, but the first half of “Somebody That I Used To Know” treads too close to bland soft-rock for it to be a perfect homerun. I like it way more than I don’t, and I’ll gladly listen to it over, say, “We Are Young”, but something about it just comes up short. Still beats “Part of Me”.
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