It’s hard to describe Gotye without making him sound more exotic than he really is. The Belgian-born Australian, who performed at a sold-out 9:30 Club on Thursday night, is a multi-instrumentalist and studio wizard with a wealth of names: Born Wouter De Backer, he became Walter (or Wally) down under and took his stage name from a phonetic spelling of Gauthier, the French equivalent of Wouter/Walter. His music is basically British-style synth-pop, yet with more than a few classic-rock and -soul touches.
Gotye’s 75-minute set included 10 of the 12 songs from “Making Mirrors,” his third album and global breakthrough, plus four from its predecessor. The backup quartet’s lineup was the standard guitar, bass, drums and synthesizer, but the music’s emphasis was indicated by the instruments that surrounded the frontman: all keyboards and percussion. Gotye alternated frequently among them, and each of the other musicians at some point played synth, drums or both. During “Thanks for Your Time,” an older tune that suggested mid-’80s Scritti Politti, all five musicians clustered together to bleep or thwack, leaving the guitar and bass idle.
“Thanks for Your Time” was one of several numbers for which the amiable Gotye assigned simple vocal parts to the audience. Singing was as central to the music as synth-ing, with Gotye’s light tenor often pushed into its falsetto range or, for “State of the Art,” distorted by vocoder. The performer’s voice, often compared to Sting’s, was supple and reasonably versatile. But the evening’s crowd-pleasing vocal belonged to Kimbra, the opening act, who walked onstage to sing her part on “Somebody That I Used to Know” — the lilting busted-love lament that became a YouTube hit in the United States before “Making Mirrors” was even released here.
Despite his enthusiasm for percussion, Gotye was more inclined toward loping trip-hop than room-shaking dance music. “The Only Way” did feature a disco beat, and “Learnalilgivinanlovin” closed the show with perhaps 30 seconds of insistent synth bleat. But the musician was more likely to build a song around an acoustic guitar vamp that evoked ’70s Steve Stills (“In Your Light”) or a synth-trumpet fanfare that suggested Paul McCartney doing Stax-Volt (“I Feel Better”). Gotye may be a one-hit wonder, but his 9:30 show was a tutorial on four decades of pop music.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.