At Merriweather Post Pavilion, Gotye plays the hit, and the rest

You’ve probably experienced this: There’s a man with no clothes on, and you’re staring at his left foot. A xylophone chimes out of some hazy nursery-school memory. You’re inspecting his hairy shin, his pale haunches, that wounded look on his face. Moments later, the guy is covered in body paint, reminding you of the last time your heart felt like a gum wrapper, crumpled and insignificant. You click the “play again” button and watch the music video for Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” on YouTube for 327,093,123rd time.

This song is a bruise we can’t stop pressing. But it felt different when Gotye sang it for a few thousand fans at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday night.

For starters, he was dressed — black pants, charcoal oxford, skinny tie and three-day stubble, like a hip temp. And when he burst into the breakup anthem’s self-pitying chorus, it seemed undeniably jubilant. Thousands of voices singing along to a chart-topping hit? It’s impossible to mope in a mass-karaoke moment like that.

And the 32-year-old Australian singer — born Wouter De Backer, his stage name is pronounced like fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier — seems like a pretty affable guy, anyway. He’s been releasing albums since 2003 but has been treated like a rookie by the masses since the explosion of “Somebody,” which spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart this year. By comparison, his follow-up singles have failed to make even the tiniest nano-fraction of a dent.

But Gotye has said in interviews that he’d be fine with going down in the books as a one-hit wonder, knowing that he has core fans who want to hear all of his songs. A few hundred ticket-holders at Merriweather on Sunday didn’t fall into that category, however, pouring into the exit aisles the moment the tune was over.

The 18-song set gave Gotye plenty of time to make a case for himself, but instead his songs wandered in disparate directions. “Thanks for Your Time” was a Peter Gabriel-ish song about lousy customer service while the optimistic “I Feel Better” sounded like Squeeze doing Motown.

The emotive stuff was rare. “The Only Thing I Know” from his 2003 debut album, “Boardface,” carried some scars — “You were real but then you left me / And that’s the part I can’t accept” — but Gotye sang this one from behind the drum kit, multitasking far away from his audience when he should have been on the lip of the stage pouring his guts out.

Throughout the evening, he seemed like a man more interested in playtime than gut-spilling. Backed by a four-piece band, he rotated between five workstations positioned across the stage, using drumsticks and fingertips to manipulate samplers, drum pads, finger cymbals and other doodads that go plinkity-plunk-plonk in the night.

Those bells and whistles made the music feel precious at times, while videos projected in the background repeatedly pulled the spotlight off of the star. There were cartoons of flying locomotives, mutant church organs and androids wandering through blizzards — all distracting. But the images projected during set-opener “The Only Way” seemed Freudian: slow motion video footage of smoke rings, colored inks splashing in water and other things that look pretty for a moment, then vanish.

A dozen songs later came “Somebody That I Used to Know,” with Missy Higgins, an Australian pop singer who opened the show, throwing some gusto into the verse that New Zealand singer Kimbra handled on the recording.

Fans greeted the song’s opening melody and Higgins’s cameo with contented roars, video rolling on the hand-held devices hoisted in front of their faces. At most concerts, this practice turns the stomach, but Sunday night, it felt a little romantic. A glowing three-inch window is where we all met Gotye in the first place.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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