This lumbering behemoth is a 4/4-time hymn to all that is menacing. It’s built around a simple progression of four minor chords and is a haunted house in musical form. It starts out sounding like Dead Can Dance Performing in the Sahara Desert; and when the vocals start, well I can’t quite place who he sounds like but it’s menacing as hell and I love it.
Throwing out highly technical terms for various toxins, the singer describes a poisonous relationship. (Check out the Genius annotations for the song.) At about the 1:30 mark, the momentum stops in order to observe a moment of reverence in the form of a canon pulled from the Church of Evil Daft Punk. As the buzzsaw organ repeats its theme slowly a warble is built-in, until we get to the point of madness. The lyrics then offer this strange inversion: “She doesn’t need my help poisoning the well beneath the rue leaves. She only needs my help pleasuring herself beneath the rue leaves.”
It’s an inversion in that the whole point of pleasuring oneself is self-reliance; so why does this overbearing person require help to help herself, but not sowing the poison? I’d wager that it’s a codependent relationship where she’s so focused on herself that, for most of her activities (like, you know, poisoning the well, as one does) she’s doesn’t invite him in; when it’s time for pleasure, however, she doesn’t share it, just wants pleasure for herself but makes him work toward that end.
This goes hand-in-hand with the unusual title: in reference to relationships we always think of “chemistry” as occurring between two people, but here he takes that convention and turns it into I am chemistry, specifically the chemistry of poison. So he’s showing that he, like the woman he’s railing against, can take the communal and weaponize it.
Then, the organ drops suddenly out and up pop the Children of the Damned, telling us (over the sound of a jangly piano) exactly what a mother told them not to do: “fool with oleander” or “handle the deadly Quaker Buttons”. The implication, of course is, that the singer has nothing to do with this admonition, but is completely free to handle the “Quaker buttons” whenever he likes. (Quaker Buttons are a nickname for the seeds of the strychnine tree which, in case you’re not familiar with that plant, is highly poisonous.)
The verses to this song are all references to other forms of poison: digoxin, foxglove, VX nerve agents, and perhaps most interestingly, C4H10FO2P (the chemical formula for sarin). Many of these are naturally occurring or have alternatively useful applications; digoxin, for example, can be used to treat heart failure.
At the end of the day, I don’t really care about the narrative or piecing together the backstory; I just love this song because the instrumentation, the singing, the chord progressions all sound so marvelously wicked that I can’t help but love it.
Lastly, here’s the video. I don’t know that it particularly adds any meaning to the song for me, but it’s just as badass as the song itself, so it’s worth a watch. (I actually think that Yeasayer’s videos in general are really good, actually. Some of the best I’ve seen in a while.)