Vance Joy (photo: Tiffany Lew)
Vance Joy sings like he’s speaking directly to you, lyrically weaving through the highs and lows of love — longing, patience, and (mis)understanding. Just ask one of the numerous teenage girls who screamed, “You’re so cute!” throughout his Nation of Two tour kickoff concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on April 13.
“Riptide” catapulted the Melbourne singer-songwriter to radio airwaves around the world a few years ago, and work from his latest album, Nation of Two, brought just as much excitement to the crowd. Thousands of fans effortlessly sang and swayed to a backdrop of flashing neon light signs outlining a couple in various stances together.
The 30-year-old covered several songs from the new album, which was released in February. The album sounds underproduced, and at times even falls flat, but his live performance was a notably richer experience — the lyrics felt fuller and his voice expansive, as if each intonation was pumping into a pulsating heart fueled by the energy of the crowd. His quavering voice was magnified, making the songs feel all the more universal and the sentiments raw and genuine; the lyrics seemed to wrap around the stadium crowd, who had them memorized like the time and place of an important first date.
His visual lyrics are on full display in “Like Gold,” a new song he said is about feelings in a relationship that maybe weren’t sustainable, but that you were glad to experience. His voice was consistently (and expectedly) shaky on lyrics like, “Hanging by a thread/Cutting the cord and then falling back into the/Black ’cause if I don’t.” In an untwining relationship, Edwin White on drums provided the only thing going steady.
Oftentimes, it’s as if Vance Joy casts a thin veil between himself and the sentiments delivered in his music. It’s where intimacy and levity somehow manage to meet, and that may come across as too nonchalant and detached in albums. A song like “I’m With You” was monotonous to me in the recording. But on stage, as a solo act, a dichotomous tone was noticeable. He started off cool enough, but when he reached falsetto, you knew he was really cracking and emotions were high.
His boyish earnestness was seen in a few moments of forgotten lyrics, adding to the singsong camaraderie of the night. “I was so excited that I forgot the lyrics,” he said with a grin before jumping right back into a new song, “Alone With Me.” He had no reason to be concerned though, as the crowd carried tunes, including old favorites like “Your Mess Is Mine” and “Fire and Flood.”
I sometimes fell out of the pocket of his music, wondering if his quavering voice was becoming distracting, a nuisance, even as I felt the impact of it more powerfully than on his albums. But this became a moment of art mimicking life. Like questioning the intentions of a lover, wondering where something is going and if it can all be shaky, beautiful, and real. Like a lover struggling to create a perfect valentine with a blunt blade, Vance Joy’s songs about relationships are simple yet complicated, and sometimes rough around the edges.