For the past five days I’ve been singing one song to myself, over and over. It’s a sign of how much I’ve also been listening to it that I already know the lyrics off by heart (it also helps that they’re not that complicated).
That may not say too much, you may think – after all, I’m a lyrics girl usually, in the sense that I can put up with a slightly less-than-fantastic tune if the lyrics mean something to me, whereas, save a few exceptions, you could have the best melody in the world and it still wouldn’t mean much to me if the lyrics were thoughtless and inane.
But sometimes, a song will combine in a glorious alchemy and deliver both a memorable, hauntingly layered melody alongside a set of lyrics that seem to have been written just for you. Indeed, there is much in literature about how great poetry and classic books can make the reader feel less alone; that feeling you get when you read something that you yourself could or would have said had you only been more eloquent, more prone to writing stuff down, more effusive.
Sour yet exquisite, that feeling that hits you when you read or hear something that perfectly encapsulates how you yourself have felt at your happiest or saddest time ‒ when it seemed that only you were alone in the dark; the only one to feel such depths of pain or joy ‒ can only be described as delectably bittersweet, like biting down on a 80% cocoa piece of chocolate; indulgent but as electrifying; comforting with a hint of danger.
So when I heard Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, having never heard anything about it before, I was instantly hooked. The lyrics are, quite simply, enough to make me stop in my tracks. They’re not especially poetic, they’re not especially sharp. They’re not even really, in themselves, that original. But, very simply, they summarise something that I’ve always found utterly baffling, surreal, and, I admit with some regret, exquisitely painful.
How two people, who have been closer to each other than anyone else in their lives at that point; sharing thoughts, dreams, bed space, conversation, morning breath, silken strokes on smoothest skin, meals, music, journeys, discomfort, pain, books, happiness, comedy programmes, sofas, hidden looks, small irritations, comfortable silences, shared food, flashes of mutual understanding, late-night texts, early-morning calls, long discussions and inside jokes; secret desires, sexual longings and bodily fluids; two people who know exactly how ticklish is the other one’s skin, exactly how their neck smells in the late afternoon; exactly how sensitive is the inside crook of their arm, how the muscles in their back contract when they’re concentrating, how their hair feels after a shower, how the freckles on their face show immediately after waking; can suddenly, sometimes after a mere cutting sentence or even a vacant, dragging silence, simply decide to never, ever speak again.
Even when you’ve lived through the wrenching despair of knowing that your relationship is more-than-likely heading for an explosively splintering collision faster than a derailed express train clattering off its tracks, or worse, slower than a wispy cloud across a spring day’s sky, the idea that one day will be the last time you will talk, the last time you will touch, the last time you’ll see those dimples or stroke that hair or smell that skin – it makes absolutely no sense to me. I know it has to happen, and sometimes it’s also a blessed relief from a train wreck in motion, and the best thing for your piece of mind and all-out sanity, and yet, on a profound level, it still just doesn’t completely compute.
I’m not even especially thinking of one relationship in particular; my most recent relationship ended a good couple of years ago anyway. But it’s the same feeling, albeit less powerful, when you share a connection with someone – a wonderful date that you thought was perfect but was seen as far less so from the other side of the table; a long-running crush on a friend that remains entirely unknown and unrequited; even, sometimes, a fantastic conversation with an enigmatic stranger on a plane; a shared experience with an unexpectedly kind or sensitive-eyed commuter on the Tube. In each case, you trust someone a little more than might seem sensible, and in each case, your trust ends with being washed away like sand under sea.
And so baffling are the feelings that they’re never far away. On bad days, that completely befuddling sense of confusion and hurt residing in the smashed pieces of past relationships still has the power to cut through my chest like a jet of freezing air into a warm room.
A basket-weave of sound
So when I heard the piercing, almost childlike notes on the Gotye song, creating one of the most vivid examples of what I can only describe as a basket-weave of sound, introducing a downbeat and collected vocal, speaking honestly about a past relationship, keeping it together but with a hint of the all-too-familiar tears threateningly and treacherously close to the surface, it caught my ear.
Because then it all started making sense. “…Like when you said you felt so happy you could die…But you didn’t have to cut me out, make out like it never happened and that we were nothing, I don’t even need your love, but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough” – here was a simple, utterly devastating, to-the-point summary of how it feels when someone you’ve loved so powerfully suddenly decides that their life would be infinitely better without you.
“Now you’re just somebody that I used to know”, the song says.
Even when, as Gotye sings earlier in the song “I admit that I was glad that it was over” and “I felt so lonely in your company”, the idea that a person you were so close to, even ‘”addicted to”, would “treat me like a stranger” is simply “rough”. There’s nothing else, really, that can be said about such a completely final turn of events. Even the way he sings it demonstrates the feeling of hitting a wall, while the echo, stretched over the static xylophone-esque background, is almost reminiscent of the repeated throbs of realisation that come out of nowhere and hit you in the months following a break-up.
When the female vocalist, New Zealander Kimbra, whose initially tender voice grows into a shattering shout, giving her version of events amid cries that she “doesn’t want to live that way, reading in to every word you say”, the listener is pitched headfirst into the action, as the sound of the argument rings in your ears and the far-too-familiar pain felt between the two ex-lovers is palpable in its rawness.
Couple this pure, yet still-understated collection of melody and lyrics with the repetitive nature of the song, it’s easy to see why I’m not the only one who appears to have fallen in love with Gotye and Kimbra’s break-up ballad – ironic, eh?
Wouter de Backer
Reportedly already very successful in Australia, Belgian-born and Australian-raised Gotye – pronounced more like the French ‘Gauthier’ ‒ (real name Wouter De Backer) was not especially known in this country before releasing the track in the UK, which had already been released around the world in previous months to similar acclaim and feverish promotion via social media. Apparently active in the music industry since 2001, Gotye played several high-profile festivals in Britain alongside better-known acts in 2011, but only came to my more general attention when I heard this song on the radio, not one week ago, and little over seven days since the song reached number one in the UK.
And now I can’t stop playing it. Its sharp yet beautiful rendering of what often seems to be the unspoken pain of a breakup makes it cathartic, honest, fresh and original. Songs talk about the pain, the feeling of hopelessness, what happens when one party still loves the other unconditionally. That’s sad, yes.
But this, this song acknowledging wrong-doing on both sides, of flat-out relief at the end of a bad relationship, and the still-hurtful shock of quite how much someone you once loved – and in some ways – will perhaps always love a little, can turn around and do something as callous as “get[ting] your friends to collect your records and then chang[ing] your number” – well, it’s the first time a song has ever actually shared my very real sense of disbelief in how utterly surreal I find the ending of what, in all probability, has been one of the most meaningful, ever-present relationships in a person’s life.
Elements of life
Life may be nothing but a series of connections, but humans don’t come to love, recognise, nurture, respect, admire, memorise for nothing – nor does it escape any single person’s notice that society seems to be very largely built on the apparently enduring nature of what initially seem to be entirely ephemeral moments. When you’re in a long-term, ‘serious’ relationship, it’s supposed to be one of the most important elements of your life. But when it breaks down, or when you don’t have one, society expects you to move on, get on with it, live and learn, and sling your hook into that swirling hole apparently teeming with ‘plenty more fish’. Nothing to be gained from wallowing. And that is certainly true, but that “now,” a previously-fundamental person in your life should become “just somebody that I used to know”, and merely one in a line of random people you once met, well, frankly, it makes no fucking sense whatsoever.
The song’s wild success in record sales and tens of millions YouTube views, to name but two measures, suggests to me that millions of people worldwide agree. This almost feels incidental – after all, the lonely truth is that only you can feel your emotions – but yet, that Gotye and Kimbra have managed to put down in symphony what that complex nest of emotions can feel like – tinged with regret – musically, softly, powerfully, piercingly, gut-wrenchingly and utterly melodically; entirely acknowledging the total lack of logic that a break-up or rejection can seem to embody – makes the track all the more powerful and, I’ll admit, totally addictive, helping process raw emotions without the relentless self-pitying that they would otherwise demand.
The sense of shared pain and the ability to come out the other side with such a memorable song is startling in its sympathy – and oddly comforting.
Total, harmless and beautiful music therapy: if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put my headphones back in.
Other songs that for one reason or another, at one time or another, have felt almost as powerful to me (if not as powerful) when it comes to the end of relationships
(It’s odd yet reassuring to know that, the songs’ popularity, must mean that I’m not the only one who thinks so)
- Someone Like You, by Adele
- You Oughta Know, by Alanis Morrisette
- New York, by Paloma Faith
- Separate Ways, by Teddy Thompson
- Back to Black, by the late, great Amy Winehouse
- Underneath The Stars, by Kate Rusby
- Nothing, by The Script
- The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, by The Script
- Breathe (2am), by Anna Nalick
- Need You Now, by Lady Antebellum
- Sway, by Bic Runga
- Simple Together, by Alanis Morrisette
- Goodbye My Lover, by James Blunt
- Broken Strings, by James Morrison
- Atlantic Blue, by The Cottars
- Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez