Currywurds - Devourable Content
January 2018

WHAT DOES ALT-J’S “HOT LIKE THE PRODIGAL SON” MEAN?


Seriously, what biblical history are these British boys playing at?
These lyrics have been the most confusing, biblical, and sexy fragment I’ve encountered in all my Spotify streaming. No matter the band – no matter the musical context – my thoughts circle back to this opening rift from Left Hand Free by British rock band, alt-J. I don’t ooze religion or scrutinize songs for their hidden meanings, however, this line is so damn catchy and perplexing that I can’t let it go.



alt-J is an eclectic group of men with awkward haircuts and primal voices – they’ve become a recent, Tame Impala-esque obsession, but there’s something earthier (and less psychedelic) about their sound. Popular songs include Breezeblocks, In Cold Blood, and Every Other Freckle, although the first song I heard of theirs was Left Hand Free. It was a passing tune in my Discover Weekly playlist, forgettable at worst and “Save To My Music” at best. The only reason I didn’t glaze over their guitars was because of this stanza:




“Hey, shady baby, I'm hot like the prodigal son
Pick a petal eenie meenie miney moe
And, flower, you're the chosen one”

My background in Prodigal Son history was limited to art history classes where I studied Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (see background of this web page). A favorite topic for Bible-happy artists, I’ve seen too many Prodigal Son renditions by rougher, less talented painters. However, in none of these paintings was the prodigal son depicted as “hot” or attractive in the least – in the Rembrandt version, the son’s face is pressed against his father’s cherry cloak. Prodigal Son paintings by Guercino and Batoni have similarly-hidden faces, although the sons’ bodies are rippled with pure, white muscle and defined abs. alt-J’s lyrics confused the hell out of me; I posed “what does hot like the prodigal son mean?” to them on Twitter, but they didn’t respond. 

The Prodigal Son
Salvator Rosa, 1615-73

Pulling out the dusty bible from my childhood bookshelf, I sifted through the New Testament until I found Luke 15:11-32, the exact lines that describe the parable of the prodigal son.

“..the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant county and there squandered his wealth in wild living….but while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him…we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Basically, the prodigal son’s brother was pissed because their father cried and killed a fat calf when the younger son, the fuckboy, returned as a poor laborer. However, the father forgave the prodigal son for everything (i.e. wasting his money on prostitutes) and threw a feast. There was nothing in the passage about attractiveness, hotness (literally or physically), or anything close to alt-J’s insinuations.

Theological confusion aside, let’s dial back to the meaning of the original alt-J song, Left Hand Free.* A man lusts after a woman, “the chosen one,” even though she’s holding hands with another man (“And your right's in a grip, With another left hand”). That man in question is pointing a gun {presumably} towards the slag eying his woman. Maybe the narrator is attempting to lure the woman, who we already know is “shady,” away with his enticing prodigal son reference.

That ancient son is brash with his wealth – lusty – and muscled from feeding pigs all day. He sinned against his father and THE Father, yet is still welcomed home with open arms and no baggage. Who the hell is that lucky? The narrator could be invoking these connotations of wealth, sex, and mistakes with little consequences to make this woman ditch the left hand she’s holding for another.

Or maybe this is all biblical bullshit that has no bearing on what alt-J meant; the lyrics probably sounded sophisticated and matched the snarky guitar rift.


Wikimedia Commons
On the flipside of this pessimistic interpretation is another, less easily-distilled one. A middle stanza of Left Hand Free reads:

“N-E-O, O-M-G, gee whiz
Girl you're the one for me
Though your man's bigger than I am
All my days he disagrees, oh, no (Speak easy)”

Besides being a tongue-twister and stellar play-on-syllables, this line is gibberish unless the listener knows what the Urban Dictionary definition of a NEO is. “Neo is the emotionless guy that can shock you once you finally get to know him. … Neo's also tend to love only one girl. Their affection for their girlfriend is never expressed really well due to shyness or awkwardness.” These gamer boys don’t fall in love easily, but once they find Her, she’s the one…albeit in a creepy, stalkerish way.

I don’t know if this is Urban Dictionary baloney or obscure British slang, but it makes sense in context of these lyrics. The narrator – our brown-haired boy with an obsession – is an emotional rocker that craves love and approval. In this sense, he’s the Prodigal Son because he’s hot from emotion, from the thoughts bubbling under that mop of hair, and maybe shame from succumbing to those feelings. 

His biblical counterpart admitted defeat and returned home to his loving (and foolish?) father, despite the repercussions. Our lovely British singer is flirting with Colt Single Action Army danger…hopefully he made it out alive like our fuckboy in the parable.
Did this treatise on alt-J lyrics make sense? Were the scrambled thoughts worth listening to Left Hand Free at least 20 times tonight? As my clock inched to one o’clock a.m., I started twitching whenever the opening lyrics crooned. I rather chalk up these words to creative license than some deeper, brooding-musician meaning I’ll never understand. Joe, Gus, Thom, and Gwil – what are your thoughts?

*One interpretation said Left Hand Free was about masturbation, but after analyzing the lyrics, I don’t see any connotations to that (or maybe I’m an innocent girl who doesn’t know shit about male masturbation.)*

M.K.P.
CURRYWURDS - 2018