Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis, October 1st, 2014
My first encounter with Vance Joy’s music was when I walked in on a school ukulele band rehearsal. The group was learning his single Riptide, an intoxicating and addictive song with a seeming innocence and wit, which on closer examination, explores darkness and vulnerability. Joy, a.k.a. James Keogh, is a Melbourne-based singer, songwriter and uke player. He also strums a mean Maton guitar. Riptide has been so successful around the globe that it has created the impetus for tours across Europe, the UK and US and partially slowed down the completion of this, his first album, entitled Dream Your Life Away. Riptide, which is on the album, has won Keogh many awards and accolades. That could have been it for Vance Joy – one hit. But it won’t be. This is a mind-blowingly diverse and competent first album. One has to say that Vance Joy sounds incredibly comfortable in his music – as though he’s been doing it forever, and after the rigours of such lengthy touring stints, he probably feels like it has been, but he’s just twenty-six.
Keogh is smart. He’s a song-writer who loves literature and film. He draws on a massive library of both contemporary and established book and cinematic references in his lyrics, in a similar way to Paul Kelly, refashioning known idioms and placing them in a new context. He often seems to start with the words and sculpt the music around them. This approach takes his music into some interesting territory. Again, one expects the standard song structure, but his arrangements and the production on this album make every track a winner at a time when many are proclaiming the whole album concept dead in the water.
Keogh is blessed with a unique vocal quality which has hints of Neil Murray in its lower register and the urgent, visceral touches of Jeff Buckley in its upper register. He uses the stratospheric aspect of his voice with great emotive impact across the album. Strangely, Vance Joy has dared to bring back the love song genre and it’s cool here, because it’s honest. He’s no stand-over man, just interested in the human psyche, human fallibility and frailty and the wash up in relationships.
Musically, Keogh draws upon many tried and true devices. Indeed the build-ups he creates also bear some resemblance to the aforementioned Murray, though stylistically they are very different. For example Mess is Mine starts off sparsely with a simple drum beat, bass line and picked guitar. Gradually percussive effects are added and then strings and brass in the bridge, enhancing the impact of the lyrics exploring that wondrous concept, shared life mess, and evolving into a metaphoric, harmonic cacophony. Love it!
Equally transfixing is Red Eye, which is similar in its exploration of the beguiling fragility of getting to know someone intimately and accepting realities beyond the miasma of infatuation. It’s more than that for Joy though. He obviously wants to get to the heart of the matter. He wants to be intrigued and occasionally left-footed by his companions. He loves the learning process (except late at night). Like Mess is Mine, Red Eye commences with acoustic guitar, but impetus is built with an ascending three-note bass line and beautifully sustained notes in the melody. Then there’s a fantastic instrumental wash with harmonium, double bass, cello and a church-like vocal backing chorus to ensure the message gets across. Lyrically, the fabulous seduction song Georgia (on my mind) explores similar territory. Keogh reminisces about his attraction to a woman “elegant and bold, she is electricity running to my soul”. But was he wise enough to stick with this renewable energy source? Maybe not.
There is that train-like momentum across the album, often created through the guitar strumming approach Keogh takes in much of his music, exemplified particularly in The First Time. But he is just as capable of evoking a sense of restraint, and Best That I Can exudes the tension of desiring someone, but not knowing if they’ll hang around (boot on other foot to Georgia). Does one give in to desire, or hold back, like the accompanying military drumming on snare, from the hurt that will ensue if the person leaves?
It is the attention to such lyrical and musical detail that makes this album exemplary. Make room in the trophy cabinet Vance Joy. More silverware is on its way.