While Making Mirrors marked Gotye’s stateside debut this January, it’s worth noting that the Belgium-born, Australia-bred Wally de Becker has been doing this music thing for quite a while now. He originally exploded in his home country thanks to a song he released in 2007 called “Heart’s a Mess”, a song so popular in Australia that fans of their national pop radio station Triple J actually voted it one of the 100 “hottest” songs of all-time just two years later. For whatever reason that song had next to no discernible impact on an international level despite the track’s enjoyable Gorillaz-type vibe and odd, highly viewable Nightmare Before Christmas-like video. But his next salvo, “Somebody That I Used to Know”, has very rightly not suffered a similarly entrapped fate.
I first became aware of the song while riding in a moving van as the driver listened to my local hard rock station (Breaking Benjamin, Trapt, et al), and the DJ eased us into a commercial break with the warning that when we came back, she’d be playing a song via Youtube stream that had mysteriously broken over 20 million hits. When it turned out to be “Somebody That I Used to Know”, my ears immediately perked up at first because of its stark contrast to the station’s usual fair, but very quickly due to the song’s pitch-perfect delivery and rare mix of simplicity and nuance. This was a hit song in the classic vein of hit songs, the sort of track that made it big for no other reason than it was destined to be, a “Crazy” for the viral age.
It was important to note that Gotye has a history, though, because for better or worse “Something That I Used to Know” is by and large a red herring in relation to the rest of Making Mirrors. The Damon Albarn comparison is a largely worthwhile one as Gotye has a similar eagerness for trying on new hats, from electro-reggae to bedroom synth pop to ‘80s new wave and a whole lot of summery amalgams of many things in between. Sometimes the experimentation is a success, while a few tracks leave one wishing Gotye would just pick a style and exercise within it.
On the positive end, “Eyes Wide Open” feels like a modern Coldplay track that hasn’t gotten entirely lost in its own pomp while “Save Me” may as well have been ghostwritten for Keane on their best day. Both tracks are shimmering examples of piano pop done right, especially the former with an infectious groove that belies Gotye’s foundations as a drummer. The opening set of mini-songs that breaks seamlessly into “Something That I Used to Know” is a real joy, too, as they somehow effortlessly blend the barely-there computerized title track into the boisterous “Easy Way Out”, a roaring rocker that brings to mind the way bands used to teasingly toe a line between the garage and the charts in the heyday of Weezer.
But, just as often, Gotye’s spot the influence game backfires on him. “State of the Art” is a plodding reggae jam made all the more out of place by his Colin Munroe-like use of Auto-Tune, flailing around through a variety of filters and effects on the sort of track that asks for anything but that. “Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You” follows with more, subtler reggae vibes, but their rooted in a riff that feels oddly similar to The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and the track just lies there, limp. “In Your Light” is the exact sort of song you’d imagine soundtracking a coffee commercial featuring numerous extras parading through a mall park in business attire lead by a lip syncing George Michael. “I Feel Better” brings to mind a whole lot of George McDonald as interpreted by The 40-Year Old Virgin and “Smoke and Mirrors” can’t seem to decide whether it’s a Pink Floyd or Gang Gang Dance tribute.
While all of these things are varying degrees of fine in a vacuum – and none of them threaten to make Making Mirrors an album not worth recommending – it does derail the experience of listening to Making Mirrors as an album rather than a compilation. More importantly, it leaves plenty of doubt as to who or what Gotye really is other than a clearly talented multi-instrumentalist toying around in his studio crafting highly subversive breakup anthems alongside songs with as much emotional heft as a late-90s Disney credit sequence soundtrack.
Which brings me again and just once more to the Damon Albarn comparison. Fans of his adventurousness under the Gorillaz moniker could definitely find a CD to love with Making Mirrors, but to my ears this is what Gorillaz might have been had Albarn not spent his formative years as the member of one of the most consistently popular four-piece bands of the ‘90s, Blur. With no one to bounce ideas off of, Gotye is left to fool around in his studio at the whim of his and only his instincts. While near everything he touches is delivered with an admirable level of panache and skill (the reggae trips are a real slog), it’s hard to not feel both under- and overwhelmed by it all over repeat listens. Especially for those who came to this album on the heft of “Someone That I Used to Know” (which is ... everyone in America, right?), it’s going to be a largely hit and miss affair simply by virtue of Gotye refusing to pick a stance and fight for it.
The list of admirable, brilliant, chameleonic musicians is long but it isn’t exhaustive in comparison to the number of artists who got lost in their own meandering. Gotye very well could be a guy who’s perfectly pleased attaching one gigantic hit to his albums and then playing to the beat of his own drum otherwise, but Making Mirrors offers plenty of evidence the guy could be capable of just a little bit more if he’d focus in on pop music at the expense of his more esoteric impulses, or at least learn how to separate the two more efficiently.
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