I will now explain why, in 2014, I became so very excited about Gotye. I’ll be as concise as I can but perhaps you should make yourself a cup of tea before you start reading. I’ll take the three albums in reverse date order, because that’s the order in which I bought them (I’m excluding Mixed Blood as it’s an album of remixes and covers of Gotye rather than the original material). I honestly don’t know which of the three is my favourite.
Making Mirrors (2011)
This is a very accessible album, and yet at the same time there’s much to hear in it, details that emerge with repeated listening. It’s musically varied but has a strong emotional arc: self-doubting and anxious songs at the start, a block of more positive material in the middle, and some very personal and honest stuff about love and death at the end. It’s extremely grown-up: the relationship songs aren’t about young love, they’re about long-term relationships, how they go wrong, how they work out, how people hurt or support each other. “Eyes Wide Open” is a song about impending environmental catastrophe – which, put like that, doesn’t sound like a terribly good idea for a song, but it’s an excellent song and I identify with it a lot. And there are several songs about the difficulties of the creative process. But all of this seriousness is set over tremendously inventive and engaging musical textures, and there are moments of pure fun too, such as the pleasingly odd and nerdy “State of the Art”, a song written about and largely on a home organ Wally’s parents bought for him.
Many of the sounds I find so delightful in this record are hard to comment on precisely because they’re unusual and I don’t know what they are. Sometimes the Making Making Mirrors documentary helps me out – so, for example, I know that the sparkling ostinato I love in “Save Me” is the sound of an autoharp, painstakingly sampled note-by-note and played back through a keyboard. But in “In Your Light” – actually my least favourite track – there’s a sound I like very much but I don’t know how to pinpoint it apart from to say it’s an instrumental phrase that partially anticipates the melody of the verse, starts about eight bars in, is presumably a synth sample, and sounds dryly reverberant and like a hybrid between a xylophone, a miniaturised French horn, and a robot.
A particular pleasure is the singing and use of vocal layering. Wally is an unfussy singer, and it’s after listening for a bit that you realise what skilful use he makes of the instrument that he has, a light tenor voice with a warm soft tone that hardens at high volume. There’s some really effective word-painting across the join between full voice and falsetto: for example, in “Eyes Wide Open”, where he sings “or give up / when you can’t even picture your future”, hitting “up” falsetto (breaking a little here) but then returning to the same note full voice on “can’t” (anger or protest). Several songs (for example, “Easy Way Out”) make use of an alternation between vocal tracks so that he seems to be talking to himself. However, for me the most striking use of multiplied layers of his own voice is the swell of wordless backing vocals in “Save Me” that so fills in and warms the texture under the words “And you’re patient, love / And you help me help myself”. It’s full of breath and closeness and it’s very romantic, but not in a cloying way because there’s nothing facile about it; such self-examination and such meticulous work have brought the album to this point. This may be my favourite song of the album. Then again, there’s quite a lot of choice.
Like Drawing Blood (2006)
This is definitely the oddest Gotye album, and the most adventurously varied – or all-over-the-place, if you’re less enthused than I am. The opening sets the tone: it’s a strange little assemblage of instrumental scribbles, snatches of strings and percussion, mixed very quiet so you turn it up to work out what’s happening and then wham! the first song starts MUCH LOUDER. And the song (“The Only Way”) is engagingly upbeat with a slightly eastern-sounding melody, only if you listen to the words you realise Wally is apparently singing in the persona of the angel of death. Or maybe a persuasive murderer. Which is a somewhat unusual stance, for a nice lad from Melbourne, you will agree.
This is an album of wittiness and disconcerting twists. A couple of songs have sharply contrasting sections set into them – the quiet sections in “The Only Way”, the curious brief pause in “Coming Back” where one hears the sound of chalk on a blackboard and a male voice saying in French “La composition”. There’s a very musical species of humour being played out in such gestures. This humour is also evident in “Seven Hours With a Backseat Driver”, a purely instrumental track that starts with jangly piano chords and a honky car horn before painstakingly working out an idea that is jaunty and awkward at the same time. Of all the tracks, “Thanks For Your Time” is the most straightforwardly funny. Again, there’s a mathematical quality in how it systematically explores a musical idea, building up the layers, but there’s also the jokey content of the song – it’s about the frustrations of dealing with customer services – which seems to comment in a self-ironising way on the slightly obsessive musical process going on. And the way Wally sings “Your call is valuable, so very valuable” is touchingly plaintive. “Thanks For Your Time” is one of my favourites.
Emotionally, this is the driest Gotye album. Where it is emotional, it’s sometimes hard to read. The fourth track, “Coming Back”, particularly intrigues me – it’s a tango of dash and flourish, but with a high, vulnerable vocal that speaks of desperation (“I’m clutching at straws, I’m climbing up the walls”). Its theatrical and somewhat artificial air (“La composition” – just an exercise?) has an undercurrent of hysteria. The three most direct songs punctuate the album as tracks 3, 6 and 10. “Hearts A Mess” is passionate and insightful and maybe a little creepy: I can’t help wondering about the character he is speaking as, who wants to “pick apart the pieces of your heart” and “peer inside”, who’s “desperate to connect”. The song works well live in stripped-back versions but there are some very clever complicating touches in the album arrangement, such as the strange little bouncy riff on three notes that sounds like bleeps from a lonely space-station. The motown tribute “Learnalilgivinanlovin” is straightforwardly joyous. And “Nightdrive” is beautifully understated – a portrait of quiet companionship, but with a painful twist because the relationship seems to be over – and I love the way the music at the end is so much more emphatic than the words.
Boardface is quite young and hormonal, but still (already) very good. Wally was less confident as a singer at this point, and/or more inclined to create scenes and characters rather than explore some strand of himself, so a number of the tracks are sung by female vocalists. The style is mostly down-tempo and moody and often reminiscent of 1990s trip-hop; there are lots of scratchy brass parts and strings samples that sound like bits of film soundtracks (in fact there’s one sample I’m pretty sure I recognise – the opening of the From Russia With Love title song, which he uses at the start of “Baby”). The songs deal with a more tempestuous and mixed-up emotional territory than he moves in later: unattainable girls, painful longings, that sort of stuff. But some of them are absolute crackers.
“Loath to Refuse” is a particular favourite: dark spaces in the music, a vocalist with a little-girl voice acting capricious and damaged. “If you don’t want me now / Then you can’t have me later…”, but in the second verse she wants to be alone: “Patience is a virtue my love / The question is, do you have enough?” “The Only Thing I Know” fits much better on this album than on LDB (it appears on the international release of LDB, replacing “A Distinctive Sound”): here its full-bodied Depeche Mode-style doominess feels like a logical escalation of what’s around it, whereas on LDB I find it a little heavy-handed. In “Out of My Mind” I love the contrast between the main line of a vocal melody (the same singer as in “Loath to Refuse”, Michaela Alexander) set over a slow reggae rhythm and the quite rapid horn break that periodically intersects it. “Out of My Mind” also contains the engaging lines “So many signs float by / Only you are signified” – the romantic potential of structuralist semantics! And then there’s “Here in this Place”, which has to be one of my favourite Gotye songs, though I know at least one other fan who absolutely hates it. It is joyously cheesy. There is an extremely enthusiastic saxophone and Wally singing with self-conscious sultriness in a range uncomfortably low for him, mistily contemplating sex (“this prison of pleasures from which we want no escape” – gosh). At the end there’s a harmonic shift upwards, the saxophone detumesces, he starts to sound more like himself, and there’s a quite literal cold shower – it finishes with the sound of rain. All very funny – and yet actually rather lovely too.