Song #2 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra. I still vividly remember the night in 2013 when the song won the Grammy award for Record of the Year. Prince was presenting the award in that category at the ceremonies that night, and as he opened the envelope to announce the winner, he said “I love this song.” So do I, along with millions of others around the world. It was a massive hit, selling over 12 million copies and reaching #1 in the U.S., UK, Australia and 23 other countries. It was named the #1 song of 2012 on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Pop and Alternative charts, and was one of the biggest hits of the decade. Not only did it win a Grammy, it also won the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) for Single of the Year.
Gotye (born Wouter “Wally” De Backer in Belgium, and now based in Melbourne, Australia) is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has recorded as both a solo artist and with his band The Basics. Kimbra is a singer from New Zealand. “Somebody That I Used to Know” was first released in Australia and New Zealand in July 2011 as the second single from Gotye’s third studio album Making Mirrors, and later released that December in the UK, and in January 2012 in the U.S. The song explores the bitter breakup of a relationship from the perspective of both parties. Gotye laments: “But you didn’t have to cut me off / Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing / And I don’t even need your love / But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough / No you didn’t have to stoop so low / Have your friends collect your records and then change your number / I guess that I don’t need that though / Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”
Musically, it samples the opening guitar riff from Brazilian composer and guitarist Luiz Bonfa’s instrumental track “Seville”, and builds from there with spooky synths and an array of mesmerizing beats. One of the notable features is the use of xylophone that gives the song an intriguing, almost exotic vibe. Many music critics noted the similarities between the song and works by Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bon Iver. Jon O’Brien of AllMusic called it an “an oddball break-up song whose stuttering rhythms, reggae hooks, and hushed vocals sound like The Police remixed by The xx.” (Wikipedia) As for me, I remember being dumbstruck when hearing it for the first time, wondering “what is that song!?!” It’s a beautiful and haunting masterpiece.
Then there’s the amazing video, which was directed by Australian artist Natasha Pincus. It shows Gotye singing the song while standing naked against a neutral backdrop. As he sings, his body and the backdrop gradually become covered with paint so that he seems to be part of a painting. My take is that his identity is being swallowed by his surroundings. The camera eventually pans to include Kimbra, who then sings her response to Gotye: “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over / But had me believing it was always something that I’d done / But I don’t wanna live that way / Reading into every word you say / You said that you could let it go and I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know.” As she sings, she becomes separated from the painting, then the paint starts vanishing from her body, signifying her escape from what was left of their relationship. It’s absolutely brilliant!