So I got an interesting challenge the other day - @mrmerle asked if I could review an album with the keyword “mirror” for a community list. Of course I agreed, it sounds like a cool idea. Now, if this was an album with a different keyword or an album I wasn’t familiar with, I might have kept this brief at a couple of paragraphs - my workload is still higher than I want to be. However, once I saw the keyword was “mirror”, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about - Gotye’s third album, “Making Mirrors”.
Now, chances are, most of you probably don’t know this record and barely recognize that name - and once you do remember where that name comes from, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about this album at all. Why am I focusing on the guy who won the “fluke indie hit” sweepstakes of 2012? One hit wonders are hard to come by these days - hits are harder to define, the line between alternative, underground, and mainstream artists are blurred, and with social media it’s significantly easier to not have to “wonder” about what an artist is up to. Therefore, it’s easy to assume that if an artist in the 2010’s came and went from popular consciousness that there wasn’t more to the artist than the hit. They just weren’t compelling enough as an artist or as a personality, the hit was a fluke, nothing more. So that’s just what Gotye was - the “Somebody That I Used To Know” guy. Someone who wrote a pretty good song at the right time, and then faded from the public when he couldn’t do it twice.
Or is there more to Gotye’s story? Well, let’s find out.
Belgian-Australian singer-songwriter NR multi-instrumentalist Wouter André "Wally" De Backer, aka Gotye, released two solo albums tand three records with indie pop band “The Basics” during the 2000’s to mild success in his home country. His last solo album, “Like Drawing Blood”, saw him start incorporating a more eclectic set of sounds. Wally wanted to further expand on those set of sounds when he went back to the studio in 2008, exploring various worlds of sound he was inspired by. He was always working through a bout of depression and wanted to use the album’s creation as a means to “reflect” on what he was going through, which is where the album’s name came from. However, the depression led to him struggling through the creative process, causing indecisive knees and imposter syndrome, saying “There were points that I thought I wouldn't be able to finish a record I was really into or that I'd give up at some stage”. The album itself was actually delayed because he spent five minutes working on a single track. But, the self-produced album was finally finished, and on August 19, 2011, “Making Mirrors” was released.
Well, here’s where I drop a bomb on you: Gotye . . . is good, actually.
Actually, no, Gotye is *great*, actually. “Making Mirrors” is one of my favorite albums of 2011 and a very underrated art pop record of the 2010’s. Every song is bursting with creativity that pulls from different directions, to a point that it’s a surprise De Backer got a song on mainstream radio at all, during the club music dominance of the early 2010’s no less. Take the first real song here, “Easy Way Out”; an acid rock track with a dancing drum beat, a fuzzy bass line, a guitar riff that vaguely reminds me of “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction)” lowkey synths, reverse cymbal samples, and a xylophone break as Gotye falsetto croons about being burnt out to the point that he’s “looking for an easy way out”. There’s also the dramatic first single, “Eyes Wide Open”, which is about how society is knowingly heading straight first to its eventual destruction while doing nothing to stop. The song’s foundation comes from samples of the Winston Musical Fence, which is quite literally a large fence with metal strings, and that combined with pedal steel guitar, cello, urgent drumming, and other metallic samples gives the song an intense atmosphere and a very cinematic feel. This is also a good time to talk about one of Gotye’s best strengths - his voice. Wally’s tenor vocals, have a very distinct quality, similar to Peter Gabriel and Sting, that‘s very expressive, and on songs like “Eyes Wide Open” it gives the music a very emotional feel as he sings the refrain on top of multi-tracked background vocals that sound like a cry from the angels.
The experimentation continues on tracks like “Smoke and Mirrors”, where Gotye features his imposter syndrome head on with cutting lines such as “you’re a fraud, and you know it”, “you’re desperate to deliver anything that could give you a sense of reassurance when you look in the mirror”, and “sometimes you even fool yourself a bit…but it’s always been a smoke and mirrors game”. He incorporates found sound percussion, a jazzy bass, horns, and a clavinet sample from the 70’s track “Play it Cool” by Atlas, which makes the track sound reminiscent of the more trip-hop inspired moments of the first two Gorillaz albums. “I Feel Better” is a nice little retro-soul cut about how his girlfriend helped him through his depression (oh that’s ADORABLE), while “Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You” is a moody, creepy, electronic cut reminiscent of Radiohead about being manipulated by some outside power. “Giving Me a Chance” is a sweet song about your partner forgiving you for doing something that hurt them and trying to make right with them, while “Save Me” is about how that partner is there for you when you’re struggling through a dark period, and both songs sound like they’re from a long forgotten 80’s soundtrack for to the best John Hughes movie he never made.
I want to specifically highlight the weirdest cut from the album, “State of the Art”. This song is BIZARRE in the best way possible. With a loungey, bossa nova feel, the track is about a 1970’s Lowrey Cotillion organ that his family owned, and most of the sounds used on the song come from said organ. The song is basically a chance for De Backer to demonstrate the Cotillion’s capabilities, even going as far as to say lines such as “I put the genie bass on so my left hand can play the choir”, before literally turning on the genie bass and playing the choir. Gotye dramatically alters his voice throughout with a pitch shifter as the lyrics read both as a celebration of the innovation of modern technology while also a commentary on how dependent we are on said technology and acknowledging how inherently artificial the instrument is. The track has an effortlessly cool vibe with a compelling concept, and it really puts Gotye’s ear for eclectic and diverse sounds on display.
Finally, let’s talk about that hit. Now, if you take a moment to forget everything you know about this song, how it was probably overplayed, meme’d to death, played in Glee, and just look at it with fresh ears, you’ll make a remarkable discovery: “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a good song. Actually, I’m going to take that back: “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a perfect song. Built off a Luiz Bonfá sample, the song features a unique set of sounds, such as a lead xylophone motif, the vibrato guitar riff, Latin percussion, vintage sounding synths, and melancholic flute. But what is even more impressive than the instrumentation is the writing. I love the lyrics and storytelling on this track. The song is about the aftermath of a breakup, told from the guy and the girlfriend’s perspective with Kimbra taking on the girlfriend role, and like real breakups the emotions and details are messy. Gotye’s character is clearly going through some contradicting emotions, recognizing that the breakup was for the best but still feeling hurt by being so easily dropped from her life, while Kimbra’s character is so clearly fed up from how bad of a partner he was and wants nothing to do with him. Both characters feel equally sympathetic and are written with an honesty that feels deeply relatable, especially if you’ve been either of these people in a breakup before, and with Gotye and Kimbra just wailing at each other on the last chorus until it quietly comes to an end the song hits right in the heart. The interesting blend of sounds and great songwriting are genuinely impressive, but it’s remarkable that a song that’s this unique went to number 1 on the pop charts in 2011. Think about it - nothing sounded like this on the radio back then, almost every big song back then was a big, gaudy, club banger. In an era where most songs sounded like Pitbull, David Guetta, The Black Eyed Peas, and Flo Rida, the fact that this song broke through and became a number 1 hit seems impossible, and in my opinion just speaks to “Somebody That I Used To Know’s” quality.
Speaking of its hit status, time to answer the often repeated question: what happened to Gotye? If he’s as good as I’ve been claiming, then why did he only have the one hit? Well, the answer is sample: Gotye stopped making music. Yep, after racking up sales, topping the charts, and receiving critical acclaim and awards, Gotye went quiet for a while, and in 2014 he just as quietly told fans through a newsletter that there would be no more Gotye music. I’m sure you’re probably asking why he stopped making music, and the truth is it’s something he’s never spoken about. There’s probably many reasons that we couldn’t possibly know about, but I suspect the reason is he probably didn’t want to be famous. Wally has said he feels “less of a musician, more of a tinkerer”, and that shines through on the music. Listening to “Making Mirrors”, even though he clearly has great pop sensibilities, it sounds like he isn’t trying to be big and is instead just trying to create compelling sounds. Remember, this guy went from having moderate success in his home country to having one of the most successful songs in Australian history and one of the biggest songs of the 2010’s. For a guy who spent a decade being an indie artist, probably not expecting huge levels of fame at all, that sounds terrifying. He’s also gone on record to say that he’s gotten tired of his big hit, which I also thinks pointing to him just not being into fame. He has chosen not to allow online advertising on his music videos, meaning he doesn’t make any money off of them, despite “Somebody That I Used To Know” having a billion views and could have potentially received millions in revenue. And, to top it all off, he is still making music - as Wally De Backer, in his old band The Basics, not even playing under his stage name. That sounds like someone who just wants to make art and couldn’t really care with being famous.
So yeah, that’s what happened to the “Somebody That I Used To Know” guy. Over the last few years he launched two record labels, release a couple of albums with The Basics, and has spent a number of years dedicated to preserving the legacy of Jean-Jacques Perrey. He said in 2018 he has intentions of releasing another Gotye album, but no new updates have come since. Gotye will likely only be remembered for “Somebody That I Used To Know”, and he seems completely fine with that being the full extent of his time in the zeitgeist, and that’s a pretty damn good legacy to have considering how great that song is. But I wanted to take this challenge @mrmerle gave me to highlight an artist that I think is a lot more than just one fluke indie hit. Gotye has a great ear for sonic experiments and pop sensibilities and on “Making Mirrors” he was able to blend the two into a record that was more often than not exciting, emotionally compelling, and adventurous.