TIL that “Gotye” is pronounced “Got-Tee-Yay.”
Pretty cool that I’ve gone a decade thinking it was pronounced “goat-tee.”
And by “pretty cool” I actually mean, “super lame.”
I share this to give you a bit of a view into how carefully I was following popular music in the 2010s.
That doesn’t mean I don’t know “Somebody That I Used To Know” – I most certainly do. And I think that speaks volumes to just how much “Somebody That I Used To Know” stood out in the musical landscape.
It turns out that I do know how to pronounce “unique,” which is the word I’d use to describe “Somebody That I Used To Know.”
I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of all popular songs ever released.
But let’s just agree for the purposes of this review that I’ve heard plenty of songs.
I honestly can’t think of any other song “Somebody That I Used To Know” sounds anything like.
But just because it’s unique doesn’t mean it’s good.
Rest assured: it is.
In fact it’s quite good. How good? Well, in-a-flash, it’s not only intriguing but it’s highly melodic, and has that rare trait of popular songs: it has dynamics.
So many popular songs have a single setting: 10 (and, yes, I’d be remiss to not reference a song or two that go to 11).
Even when grunge/alternative added the soft-verse-loud-chorus dynamic, it was still binary.
“Somebody That I Used To Know” takes an entirely different tact on volume – and it is lovely. Add in some also-lovely melodies, and some stunning vocal bursts that just hit you in ways you weren’t expecting, it’s scoring lots of points.
In-a-Flash score: 8/10
The Full Friday Flash Review:
How many modern songs use deep-cut samples of instrumentals from the 60s and link that up with a xylophone?
How many modern songs do that and start with the lead singer almost whispering at you for the first 90 seconds of the song? How many songs have the guts to offer two verses, back-to-back before offering the chorus?
And, also, how many songs take the grunge tactic and apply it to a low-key, latin-folk-esque jam where the singer utterly transforms from whispering to whaling for the chorus? And, then, how many songs decide to bring some flute action to support the featured vocalist because why not?
Oh, and then how many songs also have the featured vocalist do the same whisperting-to-whaling thing for her verse too, in the process, redefining how a featured artist can contribute to a song as virtually an equal, ending up with a beautifully harmonized duet with the primary artist?
Oh, and another thing: how many songs end with a confident xylophone glissando? And, yes, atop of all of this, how many songs that pull off so many interesting and compelling production elements were produced by the singer himself…
in his parent’s house?
All together, I’m going to argue probably, “one.” There are just so many innovative, daring, and effective production choices made here that they catapult “Somebody That I Used To Know” into truly rarified territory.
This is a stunning production effort. So subtle-yet-vibrant. So organic-yet-electronic. So soft-yet-biting. It’s everything.
As Hooktheory.com nicely conveys, “Somebody That I Used To Know” is not a complex song in terms of chord progression (though I do think the chords get substantially more interesting specifically during the third verse!), but it’s an incredibly well-executed song.
The first and second verses are truly just two chords – simple as simple gets. The chorus sounds dramatically different due to the compelling vocal melody, but the underlying song evolves ever so slightly for a bit more dimension.
But…then…something fascinating happens: The second-half of the third verse (where Kimbra is singing) becomes a sort-of bridge and/or pre-chorus.
This is not normal in pop music, folks.
But it adds a real dimension to the tension of the song and the lyrics, and is one of the reasons why the songwriting/melody score is so high
Another reason is simply the beautiful harmonies that burst out in the duet. Again, the tension is tactile here. Expressive, emotional, and beautiful all at once.
The vocal performance here is remarkable in large part due to the ability of the performers to act. So many songs sound like vocal performances. But “Somebody That I Used To Know” sounds like two people literally telling us their situation through singing. There’s a difference. You can feel it. The lyrics better touch you through this genuine performance. Especially in the chorus and during the duet.
And, of course, as they are sharing their stories with us, they’re whispering-to-belting it just as a story ramps up to the crescendo of the drama.
The amplitude of the vocals match the storytelling, which is a unique and compelling way to use vocals to help convey feeling and lyrical meaning.
I appreciate the real talk vibe of these lyrics. We’re talking complex feelings here where love and dislike can share the same headspace:
But that was love, and it’s an ache I still remember
You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
I’ll admit that I was glad it was over
This stuff is not for amateurs.
And things get kinda chilly when a former love-of-his-life becomes a mere “someone” – holy harsh pronouning, Batman.
But a point — or two — need to come off this biting and tragic storytelling effort for one line that, all by itself, takes me a bit out of the song’s otherwise masterful embrace: “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.”
Screwed me over? First, I’m surprised that this idiom even made it to Australia where this song was written and produced. Second, this idiom feels completely disconnected from the vibe of the entire song.
Look, I get it: I said at the top that this is a real talk jam, and I think that’s powerful. So, on the one hand, OK, fair enough. But on the other hand, no: it sticks out like a sore thumb on this track and I’ll never get over how it takes me out of the song every single time I hear it. I suspect it was put in there to add to the genuine building drama. But I think it fails in this attempt.
Ear Worminess: 8/10
“Somebody That I Used To Know” is one of those songs where the entire song is an earworm. That’s good and bad. It’s good because you have a bunch of elements to choose from if you want to fill your head with this song: the guitar riff; the xylophone; the chorus whaling; the duet whaling. Take your pick!
But ever hear of the tyranny of choice? Well, that’s a factor here too. The chorus earworm is a bit dragged out such that it’s just one that you just go around humming. It’s more of a brainworm than an earworm if I’m being honest.
OVERALL SCORE: 8.8
…rounds its way up to...
I’m surprised by — but OK with — the fact that a deeper analysis edged up the rating a point to near-perfection.
While my in-a-flash gut sees an upper-tier song, the reality is that this is truly a special song worthy of ultra-high praise.
It’s got it all: the drama; the acting; the melody; the attention to detail..
All brought together by a brilliant production effort that introduces dynamism in ways that few songs wield with such power and precision.
Just imagine if that one line didn’t screw it over.