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Gotye points to optimistic moments among somewhat dark breakout record

Chad Swiatecki
Singer Gotye says his monster hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know,” is not about one person or one particular breakup.

By purely unscientific accounting, there have been roughly 13,000 parody videos and audio recordings inspired by the Gotye hit “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Seemingly all of them are linked by an arm’s length appreciation for the (for lack of a better term) blatant weirdness of a chart-topper with a xylophone, sampled tremolo and plaintive, yearning vocalist as its main sonic ingredients.

There’s a speed metal version of the song that fails to trump its inspiration in inducing “What the…?” eyebrow raising, in part because the whole of Gotye’s acclaimed album “Making Mirrors” is a wander through a startling array of styles, from Motown soul (“I Feel Better”) to Paul Simon ethno-pop (“In Your Light”) to a dub and sound effects piece (“State Of The Art”) that could’ve come from Brian Eno’s sound lab.

But maybe the weirdest thing about the record – and the thing that’s been barely talked about at all as it’s risen in stature to become one of 2012’s biggest successes – is that front to back it’s a wince-inducing chronicle of someone going through not just a breakup but a complete mental breakdown.

Take a closer listen to “Somebody…” and it reveals itself as more urgent than just a post-breakup song. That whole bit about being treated like a stranger, and the girl (singer Kimbra in the song) changing her phone number has the air of someone who’s on the verge of becoming a stalker, to the point that you could look at it as a prelude to the Police’s romantic dysfunction anthem “Every Breath You Take,” and that’s before you get to Sting and Gotye’s vocal similarities.

But the torment runs throughout the album. “Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You” is a haunting Nine Inch Nails bit of madness that’s probably voiced by split personalities, the splitting of which might be where “Making Mirrors” drew its name.

“In Your Light” and “I Feel Better” (the album’s joyous high points) find hope only in the presence of the romantic interest that’s halfway out the door on “Save Me” and “Giving Me A Chance” before exiting completely on “Somebody….”

To these ears “Making Mirrors” plainly and boldly paints a picture of a life fracturing from heartache. Swap the Beck-level musical bouillabaisse out for fast minor key guitar chords and yelped vocals and you have a pantheon-level emo rock album, up there with anything Promise Ring or Sunny Day Real Estate ever cranked out.

So how did this happen? How did an album that makes Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out The Lights” look like a perfectly functional existence manage to become a left field hit?

If the man behind it knows, he’s not saying. In a phone interview last week Gotye (born Wouter “Wally” de Backer) agreed “Making Mirrors” is loaded with darker images and frustration, but pointed to the optimistic moments (which, again, sounded more co-dependent than anything to this writer, but that’s all perspective) as a salve to the gloom. It’s not a smart commercial move to be known as a sad sack, and his cheery Australian accent suggested he’s terrifically well adjusted and (gasp!) happy.

“There is a lot of that, raising a lot of relationship and social concerns and learning how to let go, and maybe a feeling of depression,” he said. “But you take (album closer) ‘Bronte’ and that’s one about being able to put the past behind you, and getting past all the moments that have been so heavy.”

Asked about the story behind “Somebody…” and, by extension most of the album, de Backer said the song’s female character is a composite of several relationships and breakups he’s gone through, and assured that he’s not clutching a bottle of Prozac just to make it through the day.

“Some people might think it’s one story, but it’s not about any one person or relationship, just realizing that there are triggers for everyone that cause things to happen and how we react. It think part of the reason it’s really resonated is because most people can relate to those feelings, and hearing someone dealing with that, maybe it helps them with whatever they’re going through.”

Gotye plays at 7 p.m. Saturday on the Barton Springs Stage.