x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gotye's pop experiment proves intriguing and catchy

This is a curious collection, willfully populist while also surprisingly experimental, which is a rare combination, if not unique.

Wally De Backer has released his album Making Mirrors, which reveals both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush as noticeable influences.
Wally De Backer has released his album Making Mirrors, which reveals both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush as noticeable influences.

Making Mirrors
Island
****

Wally De Backer is anything but your archetypal pop superstar. Born in Belgium and based in Melbourne, the man now much better known as Gotye is a skinny one-man-band whose initial musical ambitions involved just recouping the money he spent making albums. A Lana del Rey-style careerist he definitely is not.

Nevertheless, the video for his song Somebody That I Used to Know currently boasts an extraordinary 65 million views on YouTube, catapulting Gotye - pronounced like "Gaultier" - to global phenomenon status. One enterprising Canadian band has already found fame in North America by covering it, and foreign markets have been clamouring for physical copies of this album. Can those weighty expectations possibly be met?

It is, in truth, a curious collection, wilfully populist while also surprisingly experimental, which is a rare combination, if not unique. Those familiar with his breakthrough hit may have already noted Gotye's vocal similarity to Peter Gabriel, and the parallels continue. The British icon's most successful album, So, was presumably on regular rotation as this record took shape. Both utilise eclectic influences to produce relatively straightforward pop songs, while Gotye's aforementioned video - a splendidly simple stop-motion affair - is indebted to the famous promo for Sledgehammer, the huge single that brought So to a wider audience.

The Gabriel-style songs are by far the strongest here, and Gotye is clearly fond of the multilayered techniques that imbued 1980s soft-rock vocals with such echo-laden earnestness. Somebody That I Used to Know - a quirky break-up lament featuring the strikingly talented New Zealander Kimba - has a more than passing resemblance to Don't Give Up, the Kate Bush duet from So, while the next song from Making Mirrors' impressive opening burst, Eyes Wide Open, resonates somewhere between Gabriel's lovely In Your Eyes and Bush's propulsive Running Up That Hill, to good effect.

Similar references abound throughout this wildly eclectic record and two African-flavoured affairs close it: Save Me's backing chants recalling Youssou N'Dour's regular guest spots for Gabriel, while the brooding Bronte resounds with Biko-like drums. The latter track also offers a slightly sinister farewell - "We will be with you, you will stay with us" - which is a fair point, as the majority of these songs are horrifically catchy.

Such a non-ironic devotion to that airbrushed 1980s sound might once have been a commercial dead-end, but Gotye has emerged into a post-Glee world where a soft-rock oldie by Journey now graces many a teenager's iPod. And yet the pre-publicity for this record suggests something far more experimental, as De Backer actually crafted his backing tracks from novel instruments and unlikely samples, one bass line even being culled from an Australian art installation called the Wilton Musical Fence. After much in-studio tinkering, the resulting onslaught of electronic styles often sounds like the work of a man trying out the settings on his new synthesizer, admittedly, but his euphoric choruses more than compensate.

Generally likeable, this release does take a regrettable detour around the midway point, as the melancholic tone suddenly turns worryingly optimistic. I Feel Better is a faux-Motown stomper, the sort of diluted blue-eyed soul once propagated by Collins or, whisper it, Michael Bolton. The cod-blues of In Your Light is then almost as irksome, but pales before State of the Art, a bewilderingly misguided attempt at humour on which De Backer honks through a vocoder to a tinny reggae beat. It's the longest track on the album, five-minutes of excruciating aural folly.

Those drawn to Making Mirrors by its heartfelt hit single would be forgiven for snapping the CD in two at this point, but then Gabriel's influence returns to guide De Backer through the record's final third. As the great man famously sang: don't give up.

artslife@thenational.ae

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