An early contender (along with Augie March) for this year’s J Award, Gotye’ll probably be passed over the same way In Case We Die was last year, since we’ve learned so far that populism beats objective quality. Nevertheless, Like Drawing Blood is an important album, not only for its music (which grooves and croons its way into your heart) but for the encouraging fact that it’s at least a contender, and that this fiercely singular Australian musician could really get somewhere based upon the strength of his music.
Gotye (they’re pronouncing it like “Gautier” on the radio) is Wally De Backer, a musician from Melbourne making some of the most joyfully expansive electronic pop tunes around. He’s got some small measure of attention from the blogs recently, possibly because Australia’s doyen of indie music radio, Triple J, has posted free MP3s of his tracks numerous times. You can still download three of his songs from Gotye’s website, and you should definitely check these out. For a solitary, independent artist — De Backer has no manager; up until recently he distributed his CDs personally, and Like Drawing Blood‘s insert tells us, the album was recorded in “bedrooms around Melbourne” — his sound is remarkably smooth. To give a general idea, think countless samples (from old soul recordings to a bizarre but likeable lecture from a composer about his compositional process) as well as live instruments incorporated into a, well yes, distinctive sound. It’s really a summer sound, sunny and funky, a perfect accompaniment for walking down to the beach, feeling the sand between your toes and the sun in your hair.
In reality, what listening to Gotye’s music really makes you realize is just how much technology has raised the bar. Now, even one person with a hard drive can make electronic pop music that sounds as smooth and well-engineered as a seasoned producer’s. Like Drawing Blood plays as a remarkably consistent, high quality electronic mix album, with thoughtful song/song transitions and a sustained, easily established mood. That’s not bad for a sophomore effort. Gotye’s first, Boardface, made much less of an impact, though we heard “Out Here in the Cold” on Australian radio a few times when it was released in 2004. On the new album, Gotye mixes a heady dose of Avalanches-style happy electronica with the soul influences of Hot Chip, and the smooth vocals of Postal Service.
“A Distinctive Sound” is the most Avalanches of the Avalanches-sounding moments, especially given the group’s recent work with that Wolfmother song, given “Distinctive Sound”‘s little diatribe on metal. Though you suspect Avalanches would have done more than establish the groove and play the sample, Gotye’s track ups the sample ante at the end; and just hearing that guy rip out “yeah… A minor to F, just like the heavy metal guys use” is a perfect moment. “Learnalilgivinanlovin” is worth mentioning for the title alone, but it’s an album highlight — all soul with no pretension, all positivity. And even recognizing “it’s been done before / C’mon do it again” doesn’t diminish the fun, celebrates influences instead. Isn’t that the way it should be? Elsewhere, as on the excellent “Heart’s a Mess”, the sound of the groove alone predominates: all you have to do is listen to the opening bendy-bass line, give yourself over to the smooth groove and you won’t care that it’s two minutes too long, you’ll just revel in the ache and cool step at the breaking point, as De Backer wails the words of the title in a voice that defines anguish.
“Heart’s a Mess” brings up the only serious criticism the album bears — that despite the high quality production, all Gotye really needs is an editor. A number of the songs here are a few minutes too long, just repeating the main theme over once or twice too often. Don’t get me wrong, the walking bassline on “Thanks for Your Time” is great, but we could have done without the minute-long interlude illustrating the song’s point (frustration at being put on hold in a customer service telephone call). At least it’s something we can all relate to. There’s another redeeming feature — that Gotye has a trick of withholding the refrain, or at least the phrase that gives a song its title, until near the end of a song, conferring on each song the welcome release of a new idea.
Despite this (only occasional) flaw, there are a bunch of great songs on Like Drawing Blood that, each time you hear them, bring a smile to your face. With only a little editing, Gotye has the potential to be a Hot Chip, one of those electronic-pop maestros making soul and electronica entirely his own. Even as is, even with its rickety edges and once-too-often repeats, I’ll take his moody, evocative pop tunes any day. Even if it’s not the Australian album of the year, Like Drawing Blood hums with life, and is a welcome addition to the summer rotation. I have a feeling it may just prove to be great all year round, too.