It's hard not to get swept up in Vance Joy's Riptide.
The Australian troubadour's feel-good breakout hit made waves when it crashed onto U.S. radio in 2014, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard's alternative and rock airplay charts, and helping him land a lucrative opening slot on the 1989 World Tour with Taylor Swift (whose own piano cover of the song went viral).
But what sets Riptide apart from the scores of other treacly folk-pop tunes reverse-engineered for TV commercials is its evocative storytelling: painting a picture of a starry-eyed boy who's scared of dentists and the dark, but works up the courage to profess his love to the Michelle Pfeiffer-like girl of his dreams.
That patchwork, no-frills approach to songwriting is refreshingly intact on Nation of Two (*** out of four stars, out Friday), the sophomore album of 30-year-old James Keogh, who goes by stage name Vance Joy. Over the course of 13 tracks, he weaves a loose narrative about a besotted couple whose universe revolves around each other — a union that's presumably drawn from Keogh's own past relationships, which he illustrates in convincing, poetic detail.
"I loved you in the darkness and I loved you in the fluorescent light," he croons on sparse opener Call If You Need Me, using vivid imagery of lightning storms and matchboxes to describe sparks of desire. Take Your Time calls back to Riptide as he compares his restless, lovesick mind to a tempestuous ocean, while the acoustic Bonnie and Clyde puts an uncharacteristically sweet, slice-of-life spin on the infamous outlaws, building to a heart-tugging refrain about things left unsaid ("We might as well say what's on our mind / 'Cause there's no way to know when it's your time to go").
Working with songwriters Dan Wilson (Adele's Someone Like You) and Dave Bassett (Rachel Platten's Fight Song), Keogh also improves on his 2014 debut, Dream Your Life Away, with a bigger, more richly textured sound. Anthemic lead-up singles Lay It On Me and We're Going Home cover well-trodden lyrical territory but are no less hummable, bolstered by exultant horns, strings and backup singers. Banjo-plucking ballad Where We Start has shades of Mumford & Sons, and Saturday Sun gives an otherwise twee, ukulele singalong a pulsing, arena-ready makeover.
Even if no one song reaches the ubiquity of Riptide (none have cracked the Hot 100, although Lay It On Me has found some success on other charts), Keogh has crafted a confident follow-up in Nation of Two that signals a promising career ahead.