10 Years, 100 Songs: #35. “He Says All the Right Things, At Exactly the Right Time…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 25, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
I wrote a sizeable entry on this one a while back in my abortive “100 Years, 100 Songs” project–just too many years, you know–and I thought it was pretty good and at the very least pretty thorough, so I’m just going to copy and paste it here after the jump. One note, though–you might recall in my discussion of Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment” (which I mention in my Vertical Horizon article, as I always associated the two songs together) that I discussed my (admittedly none-too-original) opinion of the song actually being more about religious awakening than romantic love. Well, I was talking with my friends about that revelation a while ago when one of them brought up the possibility that this song was also about similar themes–that the “everything you want” was really spiritual yearning, not sexual frustration.
Unlike with “Hanging By a Moment,” where I quickly came to appreciate the song as being richer for this alternate meaning, my visceral reaction to hearing this suggested about “Everything You Want” was one of disbelief and near-betrayal. It just felt like such a personal subject matter, one so easily relatable for anyone who’s ever experienced even the slightest bit of romantic angst. It was definitely a song of weighty personal meaning to me when I was younger. But, sure enough, I started thinking about it, and the lyrics started to seem less about a guy wondering why a girl can’t see why he’s the man for her, and more about a religious figure wondering why so many people worshiped false prophets instead of him. A couple lines in the chorus–“He is everything inside of you that you wish you could be / He says all the right things at exactly the right time”–especially started to stick out. Lead singer Matt Scannell denies this, luckily–he says it’s actually about a girl he loved who was kind of fucked up and definitely not interested–but it’s a feeling from the song that I can’t really shake now. Judge for yourself, I suppose.
Maybe read the thing I wrote a couple years ago, though. One reader said about it something to the effect of “No offense, but that article is really, really funny if you read it as straight satire.” I took it as a compliment.
Generally, when it comes to all-time favorites, my opinions are fairly ordinary. Often I’ll play up certain obvious differences of opinion I have with the critical majority–every critic does, to a certain extent–but in general, more often than not, my opinions fall in line. Everyone might not agree with my exact rankings on this list, and some will disagree vehemently with certain inclusions or exclusions, but as will become abundantly clear the closer this list gets to the top, I generally like most of the same songs as everyone else.
Except for “Everything You Want.” I’ve mentioned my love of this song to the great majority of people I know whose taste I usually have at least a few things in common with–high school friends, college friends, quiz bowl teammates, Stylus co-writers, internet acquaintances, and almost everyone else I’ve ever had a number of music-related conversations with–no one else likes this song. It’s unbelievable, as I know plenty of people who will defend the cheesiest, most critically drubbed of pop songs, but none of them will go to bat for Vertical Horizon. A couple of them quickly started to even use it as a one-line sealer of all musical arguments against me, like:
Me: How can you possibly like that annoying new Shakira song? Her voice makes me want to stab myself.
Them: Oh, well I know it can’t possibly compare to Vertical Horizon, but I still think it’s pretty good. [argument over]
Me: How could you possibly think that Terror Twilight is a better album than Slanted & Enchanted? There are only like four good songs on Terorr Twilight, the rest feels totally soulless and boring. It’s just a depressingly mediocre send-off album that proves how fractured and tired the band was at the time, it’s got half the tunes and none of the importance of S&E.
Them: You like Vertical Horizon. [argument over]
I don’t get it. I loved this song when it was out–one of the last radio hits I can remember feeling genuine affection for before I decided that modern popular music was Bad and I went into pop cultural hibernation for three or four years–and it still sounds just as good now. In my mind it’s still inextricably tied with Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment,” another much-hated MOR-ish song from around the same time which I think also ranks as one of the best pop/rock songs of the decade, but even with that, I think I’ve found one or two fellow supporters. In this one, I stand alone.
Vertical Horizon understand how to write a pop song. The first-verse build up of “Everything You Want” still stuns me, starting off with that unforgettable chopped reverb hook, then slowly adding the main guitar line, the vocals, bass and drums, until just about the time the chorus is ready to kick the song into overdrive. It’s a remarkably sad, reflective sound for such a huge hit song–you can feel how much the song aches way before the lyrics come in, with the moaning, dejected reverb line, making clear that this is not going to be a particularly bright song. As with most truly great pop singles, the verses are largely unintelligible and fairly unintelligent (”But under skinned knees and the skid marks / past the places where you used to learn”) but they still sound good in their meaninglessness, and they set the tone beautifully for the chorus.
And I don’t know if there’s been a better chorus written since the turn of the millenium. It instantly renders the rest of the lyrics meaningless and makes it immediately clear that the rest of the song, great though it was, was just meant to provide a platform for the chorus: “He’s everything you want / he’s everything you need / he’s everything inside of you that you wish you could be / He says all the right things / at exactly the right time / but he means nothing to you and you don’t know why”
If I could properly explain why I found this chorus so affecting and brilliant, maybe I could do a better job of persuading people I know to give it another chance. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever done it justice, but I’ll do the best I can. A large part of it is the way the words are structured–the way both halves of the chorus are split into three like segments, each escalating up to the longest and most powerful segment of the three, creating an extremely tense set of drama, climaxing in the denouement of the last part. Part of it is the words chosen–the repetition of “everything” and “all” in every segment except the last, which undercuts it with “nothing,” and the ambiguity of the constant second-person (”you”) references, causing the listener to wonder who he’s talking to and why he’s saying this, since it really isn’t clear yet in the song, as well as reminding them of times in their life they might have thought or wanted to say something similar. Really, though, the thing that seals it for me is VH singer Matt Scannel’s caustic emphasis on the key words of the chorus–”he’s everything you want, he’s everything you need,” “he says all the right things at exactly the right time“–giving the chorus a bitter, resentful feel whose meaning is once again not clear yet, but will become clear later.
The use of the lyrical transformation is decidedly sparse in pop music, probably because it’s hard to pull off without sounding stupid, but when it lands correctly, it change your whole take on a song. The most well-known example of this phenomenon at work that I can think of off the top of my head is the bookending lyrics to Wilco’s “She’s a Jar“–how “she begs me not to miss her” from the first verse turns into “she begs me not to hit her” in the song’s closing lines. It’s a subtle transformation, and one which a lot of people might not even have noticed their first time through the song, but one which adds new levels of meaning (and creepiness) to the song, especially the next time you listen to it.
The transformation in “Everything You Want” is a lot less subtle and a lot more predictable, but probably a lot more effective. In the song’s final chorus, “he’s everything you want” suddenly switches to “I am everything you want,” as Scannell’s vocal raises an octave and what was previously a passive lament quickly becomes an urgent shout. Everyone listening to the song up until that point had to know that Scannell was somehow singing about himself, but that doesn’t make his fevered admittance of the first-person perspective any less jarring once it finally pops up. And the song’s final line, now finally stated truthfully, “but I mean nothing to you and I don’t know…why….”–how could anyone not find that completely devestating?
I gotta believe that part of it has to do with timing. Songs super-popular at the turn of a decade often get left in cultural limbo as a result of not really being part of either decade’s musical identity, and “Everything You Want” was popular right at the turn of the millenium, a period populated with some of the most random and quickly forgotten megahits in pop history (look at Wikipedia’s list of #1 singles from 2000 for proof). And part of it’s probably partly personal myself–I was soon to enter an “Everything You Want”-type crush myself when the song was popular, and though I don’t remember the song still being popular at the time, it probably stuck in my head a little bit.
But still, all timing issues aside, I don’t buy for a second that this song isn’t worth revisiting, and that I’m really the only one out there who feels this way about it. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.
(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far (Now With Links!):
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly”
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem”
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday”
55. Darude – “Sandstorm“
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside”
52. Luomo – “Tessio“
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids”
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)“
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius”
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love”
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars“
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue”
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up”
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic”
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire“
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)”
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment”
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah”
39. MGMT – “Kids”
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold”
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To”
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want”