Review Summary: Australian wizard Wouter De Backer has created a diverse set of songs that is cohesive and accessible, yet rewarding for the serious musical aficionado. It is a fantastic achievement.
I am not sure about you, but I cringed the first time I heard, “Someone like you” by Adele, with its simplistic vocal line, over-earnest variations and soppy sentiments. These elements apparently make for a smash hit single though, and the Aussies in particular are lapping it up, with the song still in the ARIA top 10 after 24 Weeks. It spent a hefty portion of that time camped at number 1, but was broadsided around mid-August by the most unlikely of attacks.
The track begins with a bass playing a simple undulating two note rhythm, before a xylophone enters playing what is unmistakeably the tune to Baa-Baa Black Sheep, only in a slightly different key. Wouter De Backer (Wally to almost everyone who isn’t Belgian) then begins singing in a tuneful, yet somewhat pouty spoken word fashion about a previous relationship. He finishes two verses, then unleashes a shockingly impassioned diatribe against his former love for cutting him out of her life so cruelly. At this moment, he sounds like the reincarnation of Peter Gabriel (were said musician actually dead), his voice soaring and spitting out the words, and it is also at this moment that a mainstream star of astonishing potential is finally unleashed.
Somebody that I Used to Know
is a phenomenon, not only due to its popularity in the land down under, but because it is so unusual for such an arty, leftfield piece of music to catch a public’s imagination so completely. The secret is that inside the arty textures what can only be described as the perfect pop song. This pattern persists through the rest of Making Mirrors
, an album that The Vine perfectly summed up as, “wilfully strange yet shockingly accessible*.” This one man singer-songwriter from Victoria, Australia has created a masterpiece, which is all the more amazing due to the bewildering array of musical styles covered. The result of this is not confusion, but a curious process where one track after another become’s one’s favourite, as their beautiful intricacies reveal themselves at different rates over (inevitable) repeated listens.
After Somebody that I Used to Know
, listeners could have their attention cornered by any number of other tracks. Eyes Wide open
is one of the more immediately accessible, and is a great example of the combined brilliance of De Backers production and song writing. The song sounds quite conventional, with a galloping beat and echoing chords accompanying clear, high register vocals and a catchy chorus. Then one notices the misty traces of slide guitar that flicker in and out, adding colour and depth to the tune. One investigates further, and finds out that the strong echoing chords that provide the song’s backbone were actually made on the ‘Winton musical fence’, a wire fence situated in the town where Waltzing Mathilda was written, which can be batted and plucked like a musical instrument.
The album abounds in these intriguing samples, noises and effects, collected anywhere and everywhere by De Backer over the years. They are almost always deployed masterfully in ways that enrich the listening experience, and often sidle in and out without the listener initially noticing. When you add moments of simple but moving lyrical realism, like Eyes Wide Opens
impassioned environmental pleas ( it’s like to stop consuming is to stop being human/And why'd I make a change if you won't?....we walk the plank with our eyes wide open), and song writing that judges movements and moods within songs to perfection, you wind up with a set of tracks that are very special indeed.
After the title tracks soothing intro, Easy Way Out
starts the album off in style, anchored by a guitar hook straight out of the late 60s, and a beautiful and unexpected falsetto chorus showing further evidence of De Backers impressive vocal elasticity. It barely fills out two minutes, but its succinctness feels thought out and perfectly formed. After the aforementioned singles, Smoke and Mirrors
puts De Backer’s day job as a drummer for The Basics in full view. His mastery of rhythm moves the song forward effortlessly, morphing from a simple snare shuffle with subtle maraca flavouring to a layered and engrossing tribal thump-fest to see the track out in dramatic fashion. His use of percussive instruments like the ringing electronic glockenspiel here also fits perfectly.
The genres keep coming thick and fast from this point on, starting with the convincing and upbeat motown stomp of I Feel Better
, complete with airy orchestral backing and ringing live drums. You really do feel better after listening to it, and the high is maintained by the more conventional driving pop of In Your Light
, with De Backer standing up tall to proclaim his love for the lucky recipient. Both these tunes take a little time to grow; not because of their complexities, but because it takes time to realise that their apparent simplicity masks yet more stellar song craft.
Then just when you think the pop sensibilities have taken over completely, you are hit with the delicious curveball of State of the art
. It is a love song, but the object this time is a vintage Lowrey Cotillion synthesiser. Said synth is certainly put to good use in the track, along with portentous orchestral string flutters and a dizzying array of effects, which are carefully moulded into a mind bending reggae skank with muddy, vocoded vocals. The attention to detail is once again more than breathtaking, and one can only wonder at the care that went into creating the effects that mirror the lyrics every step of the way.
This care means that despite the extreme variations in the musical fare, there are no tracks that come across as failed experiments, as might be the case with similar albums. A quiet and slow track like Don’t worry we’ll be watching you
remains engrossing, where anything less than perfect dynamics and execution would have sunk the song long before the addictive, Depeche Mode-esque synth pops up. The trip-hop vibe of Giving me a chance
is similarly riveting, but this time as a result of a smoky and distant horn refrain, that interacts perfectly with the vocals and main instrumental parts, and also acts as the main hook to keep the song buzzing in your head long afterwards.
feels like a throwback to the pop singers of the 90s like Seal and John Secada, and the album finishes with the Bon Iver-like Bronte
, both beautiful final entries that leave one enthralled and puzzled that one man has mastery over so many styles of music. Everything in this album, though, comes from De Backers very real love and appreciation for a huge variety of music, and I must say honestly that my musical knowledge and range is simply not up to the task of drawing out all his influences. They clearly stand as salutary homages to the music he loves and cherishes, and whether they are interpreted and executed correctly or not, they stand on their own as 12 superb achievements.
De Backers musical skill makes him a Prince for the modern age, and his technical wizardry compares favourably even to left field electronic geniuses like Plaid and Squarepusher, as well as numerous luminaries from many different genres. His own particular genius, though is to craft his diverse songs into an album that is cohesive and accessible, yet rewarding for the serious aficionado. It is an exhilarating and uplifting experience, and one that I would recommend for all.
*Wallen, D. (2011) ‘Gotye: Making Mirrors’ thevine.com.au
http://www.thevine.com.au/music/album-reviews/gotye-%27making-mirrors%2720110901.aspx, accessed 2nd September 2011