James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Jackson Browne were all born in 1948. As teens, they wrote hit songs. By the early ‘70s, each had burst onto the folk rock scene critically acclaimed and popular solo artists. A decade from now, 2014 might be remembered musically for the re-emergence of the sensitive young male singer-songwriter: Hozier, Sam Smith, Ben Howard, George Ezra, and numerous others including Vance Joy have all debuted well-received albums.
Vance Joy is the recording name for James Keogh, a talented Australian who not only writes and sings all his songs, but also played Australian-rules football and got a degree in law before pursuing his music career. In 2013 he released the EP God Loves You When You’re Dancing, whose first single, “Riptide”, was voted the #1 song of 2013 in the Triple J’s Hottest 100, the most important countdown show in Australia. After raves at SXSW led to auditions with the executives at Atlantic Records, Joy signed a five-album deal and went off to record the songs that became Dream Your Life Away.
It’s no surprise to careful listeners to see in the liner notes that Joy recorded the album at Bear Creek Studio outside Seattle with Ryan Hadlock, who has produced numerous popular albums by bands such as Foo Fighters and Metric. Most to the point here, Hadlock produced and helped craft the sound that the Lumineers turned into one of the smash albums of 2012, and many of the songs on Dream Your Life Away fit that sound, particularly in how the songs build from simple lines.
“Mess Is Mine”, the second single from the album, is a good example of how Joy and Hadlock craft songs one sound at a time. The song opens with a steady drum tap and catchy but simple acoustic guitar line backing Joy’s effortless but expressive tenor. An egg shaker enters, then handclaps in the second verse, but when the chorus begins, the drum, shaker, and handclaps drop out, emphasizing the vocal even more. On the last word of the chorus, bass, drums, and strings come in, cranking up the song’s energy, which Joy enhances with two drawn-out “ah-oohs”. When Joy returns to the third and fourth verses, his acoustic guitar is accompanied by the handclaps and then the drums; he sings frequently here in his gorgeous falsetto, and the effect is that the song feels faster. The next chorus, similar to the first, breaks tension when drums and strings come in, and the chorus is followed by a bridge (which many of the songs have). Vocal harmonies enter on the bridge and release into the final chorus, whose parts are enriched now by horns in addition to the strings, drums, and bass that all come crashing in. “Mess Is Mine” is a masterful arrangement, simple enough to enjoy on first listen, but complex enough to keep the song interesting.
While the sound of Dream Your Life Away is indie folk, the songs’ subjects are decidedly in pop territory, dealing almost exclusively with relationships. But these are not songs describing two people falling in or out of love. The pop veins that Joy mines so beautifully are unrequited and disbelieving love, and the songs’ appeal lie primarily in Joy’s voice, a voice that projects tremendous yearning. In “Wasted Time”, for example, the singer is the lesser figure in the relationship, telling his lover that “You know I’m eager to please.” In the beautiful folk ballad “Georgia,” Joy likewise gives us a speaker who wrestles with feelings of personal inadequacy before his “beautiful, bold, elegant and electric” girlfriend. He wonders why she stays with him. “I never should have let you see inside. Don’t want it troublin’ your mind,” he sings to her, fearful that her understanding him will actually make her want to leave. When the emotions in “Wasted Time” and these other love songs run high, Joy often warbles the lyric slightly, as if he is nearly overcome.
At first, many of the songs on the album sounded similar, though with more listens, I heard differences that made me appreciate the album more. This is not an album that expresses an overall artistic vision, the kind of record we would expect from Neutral Milk Hotel or the Arcade Fire. But with “Redeye”, “Best That I Can”, “Mess Is Mine”, or my favorite, “From Afar”, Joy has written some of the most appealing and beautiful songs of the year about unrequited love. He knows how to tell a story, and he crafts sounds that allow those stories to come through achingly.
If 2014 is to go down as the year of the sensitive male singer-songwriter, it’s not those debuters that Vance Joy might be wanting to emulate. In 2013, Ed Sheeran parlayed his indie cred into opening for Taylor Swift’s “Red Tour”, and he followed that in 2014 with X, which climbed to #1 on both the UK and the Billboard charts. Spotify named Sheeran as the most-streamed artist of last year. Taylor Swift recently named Vance Joy as the opening act for her stadium shows this up-coming summer and fall, in the US as well as Australia. Joy’s name is about to become even better known.