Having convincingly crashed through into the mainstream with the surprise hit Riptide in 2013 – which took out the top spot in Triple J’s Hottest 100 for that year – and his début album Dream Your Life Away in 2014, it’s a little surprising that it has taken Australian singer-songwriter James Keogh – professionally known as Vance Joy – nearly three-and-a-half-years to release his follow-up effort, Nation of Two.
For his sophomore effort, Keogh draws out the perennial theme of relationships into a concept album lite. While the phrase “concept album” may bring to mind dense, drawn-out affairs that beg the audience’s indulgence, Keogh actually delivers Nation of Two as a tight little package that neatly dispenses its thirteen tracks over the course of forty-five minutes. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, be aware that Nation of Two would be immeasurably more interesting – regardless of the outcome – had Keogh attempted to present his songs in a more challenging manner.
Perhaps that criticism is a little unfair considering the awkward melodies and phrasings he employs on Saturday Sun. It takes a lot of skill to twist and deliver lyrical lines in an interesting and unexpected way, with very few artists managing to do it successfully, so Keogh deserves props for the attempt, but the song still comes across feeling like it’s made to the same pattern of every other pop song doing the rounds at the moment. Little Boy offers a poignantly delivered narrative of a young boy having an accident and the rallying of his family around him to ensure his safety.
Alone with Me, Crashing Into You, and Where We Start – which closes the album – are musically strong if lyrically mixed, but these songs are all loaded into the record’s back-half, leaving the listener to wade through the adequate, if uninspiring, songs that make up Nation of Two’s first half. The disparity in the quality of the tracks is further felt in the fact that the earlier songs often feature clichéd lyrics, or philosophical musings akin to those found in fortune cookies. Take “you can’t get struck by lightning if you’re not standing in the rain” (Call If You Need Me), “some things are simple and hard to ignore/they say, hmm, the truth is like that” (We’re Going Home), and “you look, but do you really see?” (Take Your Time) as examples.
Keogh scraped into the top ten of 2017’s Hottest 100 with lead single Lay It on Me, but given the album’s inherent lack of balance and its failure to truly engage the listener or deliver anything truly outstanding, it’s hard to imagine Nation of Two repeating Dream Your Life Away’s success.