From the video for “Somebody That I Used To Know”, 2011
Most of us heard Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” when it was released in July of 2011. It’s a solid break-up song, and with the lyrics I don’t even need your love / but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough being sung in Gotye’s plaintive voice, it’s not hard to see why it was in the charts for so long. The accompanying music video in which Gotye and guest artist Kimbra stand naked, covered in paint incited a good amount of parodies.
A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about one-hit-wonders of the 00’s in a fit of anxiety-related procrastination. I was shocked to see Gotye on the list. “Somebody That I Used To Know” was the album’s only chart topper, but Making Mirrors was well received, and won a Grammy for best alternative music album in 2013. Still though, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a single person who remembers or even listened to it. I’d like to say that’s something of a tragedy, but maybe that’s my own personal bias speaking. I don’t actually remember first listening to the album, don’t remember much of that year at all because of my own steadily declining mental health, but for years and years after just listening to certain songs on the album made me cry out with some intense emotion I couldn’t name.
The first song is also the album’s title song, and it’s only a minute long. While it was never my favourite, its dreamy quality is a good introduction to the rest of the album and Gotye’s particular brand of sad crooning. The other songs on the album are a strange mix of that same soft wistfulness interspersed with either upbeat relationship-songs, upbeat depression-songs, or a mix of the two. Gotye has mentioned he was dealing with depression while writing the album, and it shows in the track titles: “Easy Way Out”, “Save Me”, and “I Feel Better”. It always felt to me like he took a different facet of anxiety to examine in each of his songs, and these explorations of anxiety were what fascinated me about Making Mirrors.
“Eyes Wide Open” is the lament of every 20-something, despairing at the world around them — the lyrics You just get used to living in fear / Or give up when you can’t even picture your future and The saddest thing is all of it could have been avoided / But it was like to stop consuming is to stop being human are particularly evident of that. I think I was only just starting to understand the ways I related to this song back then, but listening now, under the weight of a year that reads like a political tragicomedy, where society makes it almost impossible to avoid the endless consumerism and individualism, the lyrics seem more relevant than ever. Gotye has a particular knack for repeating phrases that stay with you, and We walk the plank with our eyes wide open is one of his more political ones, not so much a warning that we need to change as a prediction: that if and when we do, it’ll be too late.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is particularly blunt in its approach, starting You’re a fraud and you know it / But its too good to throw it all away, and continuing in the same vein. Gotye’s struggle with imposter syndrome is laid painfully bare in this song. It’s reminiscent of Bo Burnham’s “I can’t handle this right now” in the way it confronts the listener, though not so directly. It’s interesting that he continues to talk only to himself throughout, in lines like Are you only trying to please them / (will they see then?) / You’re desperate to deliver, until he asks Are you watching? / Are you watching? The question repeats over and over, and it has the same feeling as Burnham’s final “Are you happy?” A little like realisation, and a lot like guilt.
It probably says something about me that I like that the song “I Feel Better” is placed in the middle of the album. It’s upbeat and happy, and Gotye credits it to his new girlfriend. We could take it at face value, and I think I did when I first listened, because his happier songs were never my favourites, but the repeated lyrics I feel better better better than before / I feel better better better, now I’m not down any more sound a little like pretending something until it feels true. If we read the album like a chronological diary, the next song “In Your Light” is a happy-giddy thing about new love and finding happiness in someone else, and they fit well together. The other person can settle the sadness / And the voices in my head, and in their ‘light’ everything is okay. But in the last chorus the line if only I could always feel just as I do right now suggests that the happiness is, if not temporary, then at least not completely gone.
The last half of the album has a lot of hopefulness infused in it, and even the sadder or more regretful songs have a resolution as they end. “Save Me” begins with the same melancholy tone the album started with: In the mornings I was anxious / It’s better just to stay in bed / Didn’t want to fail myself again, but it ends with you made me turn / From the way I saw myself / And your patient, love / And you help me help myself. I have certain reservations about the idea that being in a relationship can heal someone with mental illness, but “Save Me” seems to suggest something different, not that the girl completes him, or fixes him, but instead helps him help himself, which is far more important.
“Giving Me a Chance”, my favourite song on the album, is still difficult for me to listen to. I never quite understood why I was so obsessed with the lyrics for this one, to the point of writing them out in my diaries and planning tattoos, but listening now, I think I get it. That year was the first of many academic and life disappointments, and younger me, with undiagnosed ADHD and a variety of mental health issues, heard the lyrics You know I never want to let you down / It cuts me up to see you sad / And I wish that I could undo what I’ve done / Get back the faith in me you had and thought: Oh. It’s a blatant misinterpretation of lyrics about cheating, but the unconditional forgiveness in I know I let you down / But you’re giving me a chance has been stuck in my head enough times in the years since for me to take ownership of this one.
The album ends with the song “Bronte”, a memoir about the death of a pet. It’s another one that makes me cry – Gotye’s voice, as gentle and mournful as that first song, backed by his own wordless vocals and a slow, heavy drumming, gets the tone across even without knowing its meaning. It’s sad, but it’s all about love, a perfect summation of Making Mirrors.
“Somebody I Used to Know” is an okay song, and a good enough introduction to Gotye’s music, but it’s unfortunate that this was the song that went viral enough to pin him as a one-hit-wonder. Not when there are more painfully emotional songs such as “Bronte” and “Giving Me a Chance”, and more lyrically interesting ones like “Eyes Wide Open”. It’s easy for me to tell you to give Making Mirrors a chance, or a re-listen if the oversaturation of “Somebody I Used to Know” had you jaded enough to avoid it the first time around, but really I can only trust that one of the songs I’ve described here interests you enough to see for yourself. •
Robyn Nightingale is a recent graduate from the UK. In her spare time she paints miniature landscapes sans-brushes and tries to rope people into discussions about religion in science fiction. You can find her talking about vine compilations on Twitter @robynightingale.