“Possum Kingdom” by the Toadies is the best radio rock song of the 90s. In my mind, it beats out “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Jeremy,” “When I Come Around,” and every other song from that era. Even with that, from a radio perspective, it’s a total enigma. A song from a one-hit wonder with multiple odd time and meter changes that is about kidnapping and murdering people, and with a playing time of over five minutes, by all logic should not be a huge hit. However, “Possum Kingdom” combines its strange elements into something truly great and somehow totally accessible.
Overview and Lyrics
Overall, this song is unsettling and every element of it lends to that unsettling feeling. On top of that, there is a TON going on here. Most songs have one or two really interesting or atypical elements, but just about every part of this song is interesting and atypical.
First, the tonal center of the song is mixolydian (meaning a major scale with a flat 7), being built on a dominant 7 chord and highlighted by a heavy blues feel. The chorus is short and only played one time each time it appears. Much of the song is built on alternating 7 and 8 bar phrases and the bridge is built on a 3-3-4 phrase structure – and this song still gets played on the radio!
Then there are the lyrics. Everyone knows the song is about some sort of folklore-ish kidnapping and murder – possibly ritualistic, but singer, Todd Lewis, never comes out and gives you any details. He dances around the concept, imploring you to come see what is “behind the boathouse.” The lyrics are like a great horror movie – one that uses tension to scare you instead of obscene gore. But of course, chanting, “do you wanna die?” over and over is plenty creepy. I never noticed how creepy it is until I was working on this post, learning the song and singing it at home. If you walked by a house and heard someone singing that, what would you think? Hopefully, I won’t have the police knocking on my door anytime soon.
Format and Meter
Even the format of this song is odd:
Verse 1 just guitar and vocals
Verse music with guitar lead
Verse 2 with full band
Verse music with guitar lead plus bluesy bassline
Verse with full band and bluesy bassline (This is the biggest moment with the most going on. We’re at 1:12 at this point and still haven’t gotten to the chorus!)
Verse music with guitar lead
Verse 3 with full band
Verse 4 with full band
Out of bridge transition
Drum break (guitar noise)
Drum and bass with bluesy bassline, “be my angel” refrain
Building with guitar and “do you wanna die?” refrain
Heavy with “do you wanna die?” refrain
The song starts with just guitar and vocals (with a nice subtle creepy echo effect on the vocals) before kicking in with the full band and a guitar lead. The band builds on this riff for almost 90 seconds before we even hear the first chorus, then when we do, it’s short, played once, and we’re right back to the verse riff. Then, the second time through the verse concept is totally different than the first. Unlike most songs, we rarely get a moment of clear repetition or familiarity.
An interesting aspect that is used here to build tension on the main riff build on an alternate verse bassline. When the bass first comes in, it’s just following the guitar rhythm, but around the one minute mark, the bass starts playing its own building riff: E – G – G# – A. On a side-note, the G is interesting because it’s underneath a 7 chord, which has a major third (G#), but the G works because it lends the bluesy feel that sitting on a 7 chord like this suggests.
From there, the band mixes and matches the instrumentalities on the verse to give the building feeling. At its busiest, there is the main riff, a guitar lead, a busy bassline, and a vocal line all going on at once. Then, coming out of the second chorus, it drops to just drums, before building again by adding bass and then guitar. This is a great use of the whole band and each of the five instruments (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, drums, and vocals) get a chance to be in the spotlight.
Now, the really big thing going on in the verse is the meter. Most every song you hear on the radio is in four – meaning there are four beats in a bar. Then everything is built in multiples a four. A typical phrase might be four bar of four beat measures. This is comfortable to modern music listeners. Here, however, the Toadies drop a beat in the second bar, making the verse meter alternate between phrases of 7 and 8. Listen to the main guitar riff how they play the high pull-off part at the end of each phrase one time the first time, then two times the second time. This doesn’t sound totally off the wall, but still is unsettling. Dropping or adding an extra beat like this is a great way to add some tension to a riff.
The Music and Bridge
First, the main riff and verse section is built on an E7 chord which gives a mixolydian feel with a heavy blues influence. As mentioned previously, the busy bassline furthers the blues feel even more by using the flat 3 note G.
The guitar lead also does something interesting. The notes of the guitar lead are E – E (up an octave) – D – G# (wammy bar bends) – E – E (up an octave) – D – A – G# (wammy bar bends). The part of this that lends the creepy sound is the movement from D to G#, which is known as a tri-tone. A tri-tone is an interval built on a raised 4th or lowered 5th (same thing) and just by itself sounds evil. Supposedly, at one point the Catholic church banned the use of the tri-tone. However, nowadays no one will call you a heretic for using it, but Slayer is very well known for using it. Other places to hear the tri-tone in a similar way are in the main vocal line of Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” and in the main guitar riff from “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, which is actually pretty similar to the lead in “Possum Kingdom.”
The chorus is pretty straightforward, but does have some interesting tonal aspects to it. The chord changes are as follows:
I would treat you well
My sweet angel
A F#- E7(main riff)
So help me, Jesus
Even though the rest of the song is in E mixoldyian, the chorus really just suggests E major, which isn’t so different as to make a huge change, but it does help signal a new section. Here, the interesting chord is the G#7. In E, the G# chord would be a minor chord, but putting a dominant 7 chord instead helps raise the tension and gives an interesting color that compliments the rest of the song.
Even with all the weirdness of the rest of the song, the bridge takes it even further off-the-wall. Instead of four-bar phrases, the bridge is built on a 3-3-4 structure that is played four times, making a 10-bar phrase. This is highly atypical and again leads to that unsettling feeling.
A G# C#
Give it up to me
F# G# C#
Give it up to me
D G# C# B
Do you wanna be my angel?
Again, notice the tri-tone movement from D to G# in the third line. Creepy!
Most songs I write about have one or two really interesting or atypical aspects that are worth discussing – however, it seems like this song is built entirely on these out-of-the-box ideas. Somehow, it all comes together into a cohesive statement and that’s why this is the best radio rock song of the 90s.