Alexander Gow recasts Oh Mercy as a hollering, stomping, falsetto-slinging beast on the band's third album, and all without sacrificing his lyrical gifts or pop instincts, writes JEN PETERSON-WARD.
One drawback of being a great songwriter is that consistency is often mistaken for monotony. Despite his flashes of brilliance and well-deserved position on the Australian music landscape, Oh Mercy frontman Alexander Gow has always been something of an acquired taste for many. Having made his name on laconic choruses that often sound suspiciously similar, last year’s Great Barrier Grief saw Gow gliding through his own songs like they were parties he’d forgotten arriving at, doomed to find love but never satisfaction.
But Gow is anything but short on ideas, and with his third album he does battle with what we’ve come to expect of a proper Oh Mercy album. This time, instead of painstakingly deconstructing his own state of mind, Gow pushes further into the realms of inventiveness with his first set of tunes involving fictional characters. In accordance with this thematic change, acoustics are out; moody falsetto, deep bass and drums that burst like geysers are in. He’s whispering less, hollering more. These are 10 tracks that scorch the earth lesser bands traipse on.
“His characters are never drained by hangovers or comedowns; more by moments of rueful self-knowledge.”
The reason Oh Mercy get away with this sort of unpredictability without it coming across as pretentiousness or simply inconsistency is the fact that, whether autobiographical in theme or not, Gow’s performances hit an emotional core nobody else in pop is getting near. “All I got is this shovel man, it feels good between my mitts/I’m staring down at the cold, hard dirt, I just wanna get in it,” he cowers on the titular opening track. His characters are never drained by hangovers or comedowns; more by moments of rueful self-knowledge.
Yet there’s no mistaking this as a work by the Melbourne-dwelling overachiever. Literate lyrics, meticulous – if sparse – arrangements and an overarching appreciation of pop simplicity are still apparent, and Deep Heat’s sonic frills are mercifully few. Gow mostly sticks with a small collection of sounds – guitar, bass, drums, keys, with the addition of Hammond organ and flute by legendary Los Lobos member Steve Berlin on ‘Pilgrim’s Blues’ and ‘Deep Heat’, respectively. With onetime Gerling member Burke Reid handling production, this limited palette proves to be more than enough to work with, and each song is immediately distinguishable.
Deep Heat works not because of its ability to break new musical ground but because of its ability to borrow from other influences and use them in new ways without sounding contrived. Sometimes you’ll hear traces of Jorge Ben, The Clash, Roxy Music, even The Black Keys, yet at no point do these influences become excessive or predictable. Gow’s execution is immaculate, and he manages to make these familiar sounds into something that sounds refreshing and even dazzling. Particularly striking is Gow’s incorporation of falsetto. The man has honed his laconic croon for so long now, it’s genuinely surprising to hear him try another vocal style. Even more surprising is how good he is at it – he’s controlled and natural on ‘Drums’, vibing with high-pitched restraint and turning the tune into an almost T. Rex-esque stomper.
The album covers jealousy (“I’ll curse her name I’ll learn to speak/Just like she does, but not as weak/And if you slide that ring upon her hand, I’ll turn her bones into sand,” he threatens on ‘My Man’) to charged sexual desire (“Some say love their neighbour, love their wife/I could take it or leave it, I’ll take you twice,” he croons on ‘Still Making Me Pay’) to unrequited affection (“Doubled back to see you again, but you don’t see me,” he moans on ‘Labour of Love’). With fuzzed guitar answered by jabs of organ, the songs go hurtling forward, racing through melodic ideas.
All this makes for an album that’s often startling, usually wonderful and more affecting that you might have expected. And, in many ways, a better representation of Gow’s creative potential than any previous record. He’s putting himself out there with Deep Heat and everyone’s the better for it.
Oh Mercy's ‘Deep Heat’ is out now through Capitol/EMI. National tour dates here.
Listen to ‘Deep Heat':