Gotye has been composing music since the early 2000s, yet he has only recently attained international recognition.
An unconventional mix of Belgian and Australian, the one-man band, also known as Wouter “Wally” De Backer, has for quite some time been building a reputation as a masterful multi-instrumentalist and refined songwriter, often likened to giants such as Sting or Peter Gabriel. Three albums into his career, he offers a wide repertoire of highly textured songs and blended genres and has blossomed into an adept lyricist.
The lead single “Somebody That I Used to Know” from his third LP, Making Mirrors, has largely been fueling his increase in popularity (since October, the YouTube video has attracted over 90 million views). The duet features another Australian singer, Kimbra, whose performance complements his recounting of a failed relationship. The music video itself might be said to point to a characteristic continuity within this most recent portion of Gotye’s work, for it neatly encapsulates the aesthetic principles so prominent in the album itself: the holding forth and then sometimes unnervingly facile reconciliation of tensions in texture and rhythm. Facing us, Gotye stands naked against a bare surface, which presents itself ambiguously as neither sheetrock nor a large sheet of paper, singing to his lost love: “But you didn’t have to cut me off / Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing.” His delivery is almost disconcertingly frank and undoctored, allowing for his quiet voice and emotionally-charged material to reach out and grasp the listener through sheer empathy.
The similarity of skin to canvas is briefly erased by the incremental transition of the wall to a painting of colorful, geometric shapes and then raised once more as the same sort of crystal spread applies itself to the bodies of Gotye and Kimbra. The result is a still frame of a broken couple wrapped in material that suggests stained glass: a complex and beautifully fragmented representation, a memorial.
In its sound, the album is quite similar, a wholly shattered and tense phenomenon. Raw instrumentals lie parallel to synths and manage not to clash; warm sounds are employed in chilly melodies and vice versa (the xylophone on “Somebody” is arguably the warmest presence on the entire track); oftentimes, a single instrument will almost simultaneously produce vastly different tone colors. “Eyes Wide Open” jaunts outward from an oscillating sound that creaks and twangs – equal parts banjo and warehouse-wall scrape. Such choices in production values create expansive and self-sufficient soundscapes, which also are conducive to preserving and projecting the delicacy of the rare emotional subtlety and self-awareness that Gotye’s lyrics and vocals communicate.
For most of the 12 tracks of the album, Gotye manages to weave breathable stories out of lyrics that are plainly poetic and vocals that are sensitive without being overwrought. Many of these songs manage to lay bare a captivating hesitance with an acuity that deftly avoids the horrors of reductive sentimentality. “I Feel Better” succeeds boldly in the face of an unapologetically sunny instrumental. Yet even in outright jubilation, Gotye constructs a tightly-bound humanity of opposing and unexpected elements – android-like voices chime in on the chorus, adding an element of self-reflexive humor and youth to check the piece’s otherwise destructive, saccharine tendencies.
The majority of the other songs tend to be morose in character, with “Save Me” and “Bronte” being the darkest in content. “Bronte” seems to be a song written to a pet as he dies (“We will be with you / You will be with us”), while “Save Me” articulates a state of depression: “Running through all the options / And I could not love / Cause I could not love myself / Never good enough, no.” The album’s strengths, though, allow these emotions to scatter into polyphonic and multi-tonal settings, only to return as an integrated, multi-faceted image of life and feeling to be held up for reflection.