In Brief: Some of the most curiously constructed pop music to come out in the last few years. Making Mirrors is all about making art in refreshingly unpretentious ways.
Gotye has one of those songs that seems to have achieved the musical equivalent of Warp Factor 10. By that, I mean that it feels like it’s everywhere in the known universe at once. That might be a bit of an exaggeration… but come on. You know you’ve heard “Somebody that I Used to Know”. The plinking xylophone, the young dude who sounds like Peter Gabriel grousing about an ex-girlfriend, that ex-girlfriend actually showing up mid-song to tell him what’s what… seems like it’s got a gimmick to hook pretty much everyone. From this, you’d probably expect Gotye to be one of those flash-in-the-pan new artists showcasing a lot of soulful singer/songwriter stuff firmly rooted in all the available flavors of relationship angst. And you’d be wrong, because Gotye’s Making Mirrors is actually his third album, and while it’s about equally balanced between happy and angsty moods, it’s positively joyous on a musical level. This is a record that demonstrates the utter glee a young man feels upon cobbling together a song from the unlikeliest of sources.
First, a little background. Gotye is the stage name of one Wally de Backer, a Belgian-born, Australian-bred artist whose music would most comfortably fit into the genre “electronica”, if one was forced to categorize it at all. Apparently his parents passed along the “music junkie” gene to him, along with a collection of dusty old LPs and some vintage instruments for good measure, and this was the starting point from which Gotye began to build his mini-empire of sampled sounds. Unlike a lot of electronic artists who may sample or manipulate sounds for the purpose of making music that sounds machine-like, some of Gotye’s stuff could easily pass as regular pop music, even of an organic variety in a few odd cases (his unlikely hit song being just such a case). Just listening to Making Mirrors on a casual level might not reveal the lengths he went to in order to trawl through used record stores for the perfect obscure vinyl treasure, or to record and sample every note of an acoustic instrument for the sake of playing it back via MIDI. Gotye painstakingly constructs his songs from these elements while also playing more conventional instruments such as the guitar, piano, or percussion live in studio, basically trying everything umpteen ways until it all gels together into some sort of an addictive groove. Whether that groove sounds like rock music, or coffeehouse music, or something straight out of the 80s, or something so weird it’s nigh unclassifiable, is of little consequence to Gotye. The result is one of the most deliciously addictive mixed bags of an album in recent memory to actually make an impact on mainstream music. I just can’t stop listening to the thing.
What’s unfortunate about Making Mirrors is that it’s one of those albums most people aren’t likely to “get” if they listen for the conventional things that make people like music. Those who are in it for the vocals, who care more about a good performance than a well-written lyric, will probably enjoy it well enough. Gotye’s got a pretty solid set of pipes (the common comparisons to other husky baritones such as the aforementioned Peter Gabriel are definitely warranted), and if you set aside one track where he experiments with bizarre electronic manipulations of his own voice, just about anything he sings seems to turn to gold. Those who are in it for a good toe-tapping beat are likely to be baffled as often as they’re delighted, with a handful of ambient tracks adamantly refusing to jump out and grab the listener with any obvious hook. Those who are in it for the lyrics may be the most disappointed of the lot – I don’t think Gotye’s a bad songwriter, per se, and sometimes he’s even a bit clever. But most of the album is full of fairly generic sentiments that, quite honestly, we’ve all heard before. So for me it’s not so much about what he says, but how he sets the scene for what he has to say. It’s the merging of words and sounds that ultimately makes this album a winner. Even on the handful of songs I don’t like, the music sets the mood perfectly, making it clear that for all of his wacky experimentation, he knows how to make the tools available in a recording studio serve the song. (There is that one bizarre song I mentioned earlier that might be the lone exception, existing for no purpose other than to show off the capabilities of an outdated instrument, but strangely enough, that might actually be my favorite one!)
1. Making Mirrors
The title track is just hints of whispers, floating in on gentle synthesized flute sounds, lasting barely a minute. It’s a mood setter, so I can’t really judge it as if it were a full song. It sets the stage nicely for a trip inside Gotye’s imaginative mind, but it doesn’t really do anything to segue into the album’s first “real” song.
2. Easy Way Out
That first “real” song comes slamming in rather suddenly on a chunky drum beat, accompanied by a guitar riff that sounds a bit like it’s being filtered through a talkbox. Fun stuff, but it’s a schizophrenic little song that slides by in just under two minutes. The verses are hushed and resigned while the chorus cries out to be saved from the sheer monotony of the everyday routine… it’s great for those who like dynamic range in their music, but a bit annoying when you’re blasting it in the car and still can’t seem to make out the verse lyrics. The short length of the song is possibly due to Gotye being “meta” – he seeks an easy way out of actually completing the song when, after blazing through two verses and three choruses, your expectation of a bridge is subverted as the song suddenly grinds to a halt and the next track starts in as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
3. Somebody that I Used to Know
We’ve really been over that next track already, but if by some odd stroke of luck you haven’t heard it yet (either Gotye’s version or Walk Off the Earth doing the “five people on one guitar” thing), I’ll do my best to recap: We start with a slinky little acoustic guitar groove, on top of which a xylophone can be heard plunking away. It’s like an acoustic approximation of some mellow world-beat experiment, though more and more electronic/sampled sounds slowly begin to creep in as the song unwinds. Gotye’s working the whole whisper/shout dynamic here, sullenly going over the ending of a relationship and admitting he was actually relieved it was finally over, only to find new reasons to feel bummed out about it when the woman decided she didn’t even want to be friends. His bitter chorus comes bellowing out of the speakers in such an iconic way that pretty much everyone has compared it to either Sting or Peter Gabriel. For the most part I’ve seen that intended as a compliment rather than an accusation of treading familiar ground. But it’s New Zealander Kimbra who really makes the song, as she joins in at the second verse to tell that mean ex-girlfriend’s side of the story, pulling no punches as she opens with the line, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.” It’s a heck of a curveball to throw, because we’re so used to breakup songs that just give you one side of the story and play it for all the sympathy it’s worth. Gotye isn’t afraid to make his own character come across as an unsympathetic, obsessive loser, though for her part, Kimbra also comes across as more than a bit vindictive as her vocal lines keep jumping in to haunt his angsty chorus. Shoot, listen to both sides of just about any former couple’s story of a breakup that didn’t go well, and it’ll probably go something like this. The song a powerful duet that deserves its status as an unlikely pop hit. I think my favorite part of it is that Gotye specifically mentions her having her friends come by to collect her records. Sure, he misses the sex and the companionship and all, but man, that was a low blow – he’s really gonna miss rummaging through that vinyl collection of hers!
4. Eyes Wide Open
“So this is the end of the story…” Gotye gets the first of a few 80s flashback moments with this politically charged song that’s become a pretty solid hit in its own right even if it’s been hopelessly overshadowed by “Somebody”. I like that the two are so different, and that both express different sides of one man’s personality without trying to copy a formula. Here a thundering drum beat combined with a bit of synthesized ambiance, some sampled bits of lap steel (hey, that’s not very 80s!), and about three of four copies of Gotye doing his own backing vocals. He may as well be a prophet warning us of Doomsday, for all of his assertions that “We walk the plank with our eyes” wide open, but listen more closely and you’ll realize it’s not just an empty threat. Yeah, this is one of those environmentally conscious songs, and despite how heavy the Aesop might be, it’s actually some of Gotye’s best rhyming. “It was like to stop consuming’s to stop being human”, he notes in the second verse, which is not only a keen observation, it’s also a clever rhyme. “I will not make a change if you won’t.” That really gets me, because it’s mostly little decisions that we don’t even consciously think about that lead to overconsumption – not big, sweeping, greedy moves made by generically evil corporations like you see in the movies. There might be a slight drawback in that Gotye really seems to start digging into the issue only to let the chorus (which is just one line repeated) coast for nearly half the song after that. Seems like he could have said more. But still, it’s a solid song.
5. Smoke and Mirrors
That “talkbox-y” sort of sound is back here, to the point where I’m honestly not sure if the lead instrument is the guitar or the keyboard. Ditching the steady 4/4 rhythms that the past few songs have featured in favor of a rollicking 6/8, this track shows off a little more of a bluesy/jam-oriented side to Gotye. The bass on this one is just awesome – and if I’m not mistaken, it sounds like it could actually be an upright bass. And then there are these little horn bursts, and even a little bit of harp here and there… man, there are just so many awesome things thrown into this track that I lost count. If you’re a fan of MuteMath, imagine mashing up the songs “Stare at the Sun” and “Armistice”, and you might sort of get the idea. The lyric isn’t one of Gotye’s happier ones (well, I guess none of them so far have been!), as he proceeds to tear down some sort of slick entertainer or charismatic leader who can “put on quite a show”, but who is ultimately a total fraud. This one might start to lose itself a bit as the bass and percussion loop around for a few minutes near the end – it doesn’t have as obvious of a chorus hook as some of the others. Still, the skill it took to perform and arrange this sucker makes it a winner.
6. I Feel Better
It took me a while to appreciate this one. That’s not to say that it isn’t catchy or anything. Oh, it’s quite catchy. Almost to the point of annoyance to be honest. See, it starts off with this blast of a horn fanfare that I’m sure must have been sampled from some cool but obscure source (’cause that’s how Gotye rolls), and then it gets rolling with this 60s pop/Motown sort of beat to it that I’ve heard a lot of bands try to approximate, to the point where I actually think it’s a bit of a cliche. Some bands like Belle & Sebastian can pull it off in their own sweetly subversive way. Other artists just run the unfortunate risk of trying to sound like they have more melanin than they do. That’s sort of how I feel about this one. The cornball lyrics about being down and out until you find a pretty, friendly face to tell you it ain’t all that bad really aren’t helping matters, either. I’m sure it’s a meaningful song when dedicated to some specific person who helped pull Gotye through a rough time. And the mood whiplash out of all the angry/depressing songs might actually be justified due to how he covers himself by saying he “couldn’t look on the bright side” in the first verse. There’s something about songs by self-confessed pessimists admitting even they have to be optimistic sometime that does actually manage to strike a chord with me, which is why ultimately I came around and realized, I kind of like this one. It just needs a little more of Gotye’s signature sound manipulation to make it sound less like a straight-up genre exercise.
7. In Your Light
Putting two unrelentingly happy pop songs back-to-back in the middle of the album was a bit of a risky move. I’m willing to bet what will happen as a result is that a lot “I Feel Better” will catch on with a lot of folks while this highly danceable, acoustic-guitar driven, bubblegum pop number will end up being a bit of an afterthought. This one actually works a little better for me – it’s still cheesy, but there’s something about its relentless rhythm, its sunny handclaps, its synths dancing all over the place, its sweet bass line, and its near-religious devotion that make it easy to get caught up in the river of sound before you’re fully aware of what’s happened to you. If people were tempted to compare the last one to Cee-Lo Green (you know which song I’m thinking of!), then the obvious comparison here is probably “Faith” by George Michael. Take that one and amp up the bounciness factor by about ten. What I like here is that it stretches out a little longer than the typical three or four-minute confines of the average pop song, which gives Gotye time to really bring the bridge to a boil with some interesting chord changes and fun instrumental bits before coming back around to the final chorus. Your opinion may vary on whether it’s fun or annoying to hear him speed through about twenty thousand repetitions of “In your light, just when I’m in your light”, but I’m pretty firmly in the “fun” camp, because once again, it’s a great hook and he milks it for all it’s worth.
8. State of the Art
Speaking of polarizing things that Gotye does on this album, I’m willing to bet that the sharpest divide in terms of fans loving or hating a song could probably be found here. It’s just that kind of off-the-wall experiment that’s going to endlessly entertain some while irritating (if not downright terrifying) the crap out of others. At five and a half minutes, it’s the album’s longest track, and with its weird horns, alien reggae beat, its million-and-one cheesy keyboard sounds, and most of all its freaky pitch-shifted vocals, it’s easy to see why this will be considered a test of endurance by any fans who just came on board with the more light-hearted stuff preceding it. The weird thing is that this isn’t a happy song or an angry/sad one… it’s just an ode to a vintage instrument that Gotye’s parents bought second-hand and gave to him as a gift. You remember back in the seventies and eighties when you could go into a showroom and there’d be all these crazy expensive keyboards and organs with tens if not hundreds of orchestral instruments that they could supposedly mimic? That stuff was pretty cool when I was a kid. Then it got way overused in popular music and we said “enough is enough”, and for a while stuff like that was only used ironically. I’m honestly not sure if Gotye’s being ironic here, as he sings rather creepily about a family who has become so obsessed with this new toy that they don’t want to go out for dinner or entertainment or honestly really anything. It’s like all their needs are met because they bought the latest and greatest technology! Gotye name-checks its various sounds and effect as he plays them, meanwhile sampling a number of crazy sounds from his LP collection (those “reggae horns” actually comes from a decades-old Taiwanese jazz record, believe it or not), and it’s all up to you to decide whether it’s biting commentary on the state of modern music, or just an artist indulging himself in a moment of uninhibited geekiness. Either way, I think it’s pretty awesome.
9. Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You
The paranoia continues, just in a much more low-key setting as this song mutters bumps and its way through the darkness. It’s the most ambient piece on the record (if you don’t count the title track), and I get the whole “Big Brother” vibe that Gotye’s going for here, but it’s all a bit too minimal for my liking, only occasionally getting loud enough to really jump out of the speakers. The melody is also rather static, like it’s an echo of a reggae dub coming from the opposite side of a wall or something. Close listening reveals a plethora of interesting sounds that were pieced together to make it, as it does with any song on this album, but it seems to have used up all of its moody ideas after a minute and a half or so, only to sputter on for the next half of the song and eventually fade out.
10. Giving Me a Chance
The album mellows out a bit from here to the end, setting aside the weird stuff and bringing back the more earnest, romantic side of Gotye’s personality. There are about a million pop songs about a guy wanting another chance from a girl he’s let down, and unfortunately Gotye does little to set himself apart from the pack on this one. I like the gentle river of synths that floats by – it gives the song a breezy sort of feeling. But the lyrics are minimal, repetitive, and ultimately not terribly compelling, since the song’s not even about wanting the second chance, it’s about observing that she’s already given him one. So it feels like nothing’s at stake and he’s spending the song telling her stuff she already knows. having heard Gotye sing about love found and lost lost on previous songs like his life depended on it, this is honestly a bit disappointing. (And then we have this weird, echoing vocal snippet tacked on at the end: “Don’t worry.” Wouldn’t that have made more sense as a lead-in to the previous song?)
11. Save Me
A bit of eleventh-hour upbeatness comes along in the form of another sunny pop track, with another relentless vocal hook, all full of “Hey-yeah”s and “Hey-oh”s. Piano pounds away and there’s this computerized sound that turns out to be an autoharp sampled and played back using a MIDI keyboard. Fun stuff. This one sort of merges the mood of “I Feel Better” with “In Your Light”, though it isn’t quite as forceful as either of those songs, instead expressing relief and gratitude for someone who loved him when he couldn’t love himself. I guess this is life after being given that second chance – both by one’s lover and by the universe itself. That’s why the happiness here is more cautious and reverent, as if realizing that all of it’s completely undeserved. I’m really glad Gotye saved this one for near the end; otherwise the album would really feel like it was losing focus in the back half.
The album ends on a slow, haunting note, with much more organic percussion that gives it an ever-so-slightly exotic flair. It seems to be a song about death and letting go, but it isn’t a depressing one – just one that realizes everything must come to an end and that is determined to celebrate the old friend who is soon to depart. Again, rather minimal lyrics sort of hurt the message – I think this is Gotye’s biggest weakness despite his ability to start a song such as this with descriptive, insightful words. The promise to stay by a loved one’s bedside until he passes is touching, as are the last words on the album – “You will stay with us”. But it feels like we barely get enough time to stand with him in the quiet stillness of that friend’s passing before it’s all over. Sometimes songs are meant to be compact, say what they need to say in three minutes, and then get out of the way. This isn’t one of those times.
(I find myself wondering at times whether Making Mirrors would have a stronger track order if its first track was simply moved all the way to the end. It feels like more of a conclusion, a summation, a lingering last thought after an album’s worth of reflection, than an idea to set the stage with. Or maybe it could have been used as a bookend on both sides, starting with a distorted mirror image that collides with “Easy Way Out” in some thematically satisfying way, only to come through clearly and finally make sense in context after “Bronte”. I realize that I’m not the artist and he had reasons for sequencing things as he did. I’m just thinking out loud about what would flow better.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Making Mirrors $0
Easy Way Out $1
Somebody that I Used to Know $1.75
Eyes Wide Open $1.75
Smoke and Mirrors $1.50
I Feel Better $.75
In Your Light $1.25
State of the Art $2
Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You $0
Giving Me a Chance $.50
Save Me $1.25
Originally published on Epinions.com.