An ill-fated move to the US left Oh Mercy's songwriter emotionally shattered, but was grist for a heartfelt album of regret and loneliness. By Dave Faulkner.

Oh Mercy’s ‘When We Talk About Love’

Alexander Gow, of Oh Mercy.
Alexander Gow, of Oh Mercy.
Credit: McLean Stephenson

In this story

“The hero leaves home. Trades in love, support and comfort for the adventure. Don’t do it. Actually, do whatever you like.”

With these 21 words, posted on Oh Mercy’s website, songwriter Alexander Gow summed up the hardest 15 months of his life. At the age of 25, the acclaimed Melbourne musician sold all his possessions, kissed off romantic entanglements, and bid adieu to his family, friends and the comfortable life he had known. Gow was relocating to America, possibly forever. He couldn’t have known that his desire for adventure and transformation was about to thrust him onto an emotional tightrope, and there would be no safety net. A precipitous fall was almost inevitable.

Yesterday, Gow’s band, Oh Mercy, released its fourth album, every song on it shaped by his year of living dangerously. When We Talk about Love charts the turbulence and conflicted emotions that he experienced in the wake of his fateful decision. It’s a work of ruthless candour and self-lacerating honesty, every lyric forged in a crucible of loneliness and regret. That it also sounds joyful and life affirming is remarkable. With this album, Alexander Gow has finally emerged as a fully formed, mature songwriter.

A breezy string melody announces “Without You”, the album’s opening track. It’s a wistful song, perfumed with remorse. Its soft-focus production tells us immediately that this is going to be an entirely different kettle of fish to the theatrical, bombastic Deep Heat, Oh Mercy’s previous album from 2012. “Without You” has a deadpan melody and a repetitive, chorus-less structure that reminds me of Bob Dylan, and in a good way. At the end of every verse, Gow half sighs, half moans “aah…” as if it were an unconscious tic, born of a lover’s frustration.

“I Don’t Really Want to Know” follows and once again the sensuous production and cheery arrangement belie the song’s anguished lyric, a jealous fantasy about an ex-lover’s sexual conquests:

It’s a criminal lie to say it makes me smile

To think of you with some other guy.

I’m always thinking of you with some other guy.

Two songs later, “Let Me Be Him” mines a similar theme, this time mingled with desperation and rejection:

Pass me the mask, let us begin.

Let yourself be loved and let me be him.

Is this where he stands?

Teach me to be a different man.

I’d rather live a lie for just one night

Than to be the man I am.

The paranoia is undercut by Gow’s beautiful melodies, evincing a split personality evident in many of the album’s songs. Sweet music may make the pills of bitterness easier to swallow, but the overall effect is unsettling. “I figured out pretty early on that a mournful lyric often hits harder married with optimistic music,” Gow told me last week. “It’s important not to be too obvious, too straightforward.”

Obvious and straightforward are two words that could never be used to describe Deep Heat. Oh Mercy’s two records that preceded it, Privileged Woes (2009) and Great Barrier Grief (2011), were praised for their emotive lyrics and infectious melodies. But on his band’s third album, Gow and his co-conspirator, producer Burke Reid, confounded everyone’s expectations with a much darker, more aggressive sound. As a songwriter, Gow cast off his confessional persona and wrote instead as a variety of characters, most notably that of a woman in “My Man”. Even Gow’s vocal approach was radically altered – the singer frequently employing falsetto instead of his natural baritone.

Despite the abrupt shift of gears, Deep Heat garnered strong reviews and healthy sales and Oh Mercy’s career path continued inexorably upwards. But for some listeners, and I include myself, their third album was too preoccupied with style at the expense of substance. Deep Heat might have been a high-stakes wager – and it is nowhere near an artistic failure – but the risks it took were nothing compared with Gow’s next roll of the dice. This time he would be turning his whole life upside down, not just his music.

Track four, “Lady Eucalyptus”, is the new album’s high point and in my estimation the best song Gow has written. I’ll go further: I think it is as good a song as you’ll ever hear written by anyone. It dates from a few years ago, written during Oh Mercy’s long American tour to promote Great Barrier Grief. Gow had been swimming laps at Glassell Park Pool in Los Angeles when he noticed the eucalyptus leaves littering the bottom of the pool, triggering lonely thoughts of home. He had been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Roman poet’s masterpiece inspired Gow to personify the fragrant tree as a goddess, an incarnation of his absent girlfriend and the homeland he missed so desperately.

I swam the great canal,

I cast my fears aside.

I had to learn to love the view

From the other side.

Gow attempted to record it for Deep Heat but couldn’t connect to the song’s emotional core amid the din of that album’s stylistic experimentation. We can be grateful that the songwriter trusted his instincts, because the version here is perfect. The sympathetic string arrangement by eclectic Melbourne composer Ryan Ritchie (The RAah Project) is simply magnificent, as is Gow’s vocal. Incredible to me, Gow got the performance down in a single take. There is little doubt that his recent experiences have imbued the song with even deeper poignancy – “Lady Eucalyptus” feels inextricably linked to the rest of this album.

“Iron Cross” is another of the musical pillars that underpins When We Talk about Love. Featuring another superb Ryan Ritchie string arrangement, Gow’s lyrics explore the tension between sacred and profane love. The song came directly from his time in the American South; Nashville in particular. “Jesus and chastity are very important to lots of beautiful women in that part of the world,” Gow explained. “The song is me against Jesus, basically, in the ‘battle of the babe’.” Gow is laughing, but there’s no doubting the importance he places on physical, as well as spiritual, love. “There’s a real beauty and a majesty in the way that two people bring their bodies together, that wins the gold medal in terms of everything.”

Eroticism and sex are ever-present, most explicit in “Can’t You Hear My Body (Calling Out to You)”, “I Believe It” and “Cool Water”. This last one has particularly intimate lyrics:

Come back to leave me lacking

The air from my lungs.

Bottle your stale breath, ah, give me some!

“Cool Water” is a musical reply to “Deep Heat”, the previous album’s title track and one of its best compositions. In “Deep Heat”, Gow is searching for an unquenchable passion for arousal; in “Cool Water” the writer needs release from desire, to feel fulfilment.

When We Talk about Love was recorded in just 12 days at The Grove Studios, a secluded retreat on the New South Wales Central Coast. That Gow could make such a nuanced, complex album in 12 days is an amazing feat. He was assisted in this by producer Scott Horscroft – also of albums for The Panics and Birds of Tokyo – who was involved long before recording began in his role as A&R manager for EMI. Horscroft had been in constant communication with Gow throughout the 15 months the singer spent in America, and had been pivotal in keeping the songwriter focused and creative during a time of tremendous personal upheaval. Gow sent him a constant stream of demos, ending up with 45 songs by the time recording began, and they provided a blueprint for the final recordings. It was mostly Horscroft, along with his fellow A&R manager Mark Holland, who chose the songs that make up the album.

Horscroft gave me an insight into their thinking: “The thing that really blew us away was the super-emotional songs, you know, talking of heartbreak and travel, and missing places. Whenever we came to a song that seemed to come from the heart, we put it on the ‘yes’ list.” Horscroft was very aware of the difficult emotions with which Gow had been grappling. “I think you can really hear that in the songs. Even making the album, he was still in a very isolated space… So maybe it was a recording session slash therapy session, I don’t know.”

Another important decision was that Gow should play all the instruments on the record himself, partly to save time and partly because he had been so meticulous on his demos. “I didn’t [have] the time to teach anyone these parts,” Gow explained. “And it’s kind of disrespectful to another musician to ask them to clone something that I’ve written. It’s simpler to just do it myself, you know?”

Drums, keyboards, guitars, harmonies – everything other than the string section is performed by the singer. Even then, he devised most of the string arrangements himself. When We Talk about Love is a solo record in everything but name.

Gow has made no secret of the fact that his 15 months in America was a lonely time. Apart from the details he describes on his website, he has been even more forthcoming in the songs themselves. “It was simply a matter of pulling the rug out from beneath myself. Seeing how I’d land and seeing what I was capable of creating in that context,” Gow told me. “In my case, I landed on my knees and spent most of my time on them.”

Gow had gone to trace the roots of the music he loved, to pit himself against the Minotaur that lay at the heart of popular culture. In Ovid’s day, all roads led to Rome; but for the modern poet they lead to America, the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, Raymond Carver and the blues. It wasn’t what he found in America that shook him to his core, it was everything he had left behind in Australia, and the realisation that, in one particular case, there was no going back. “Being home was incredibly difficult for several personal reasons. It was a really hard time for me. Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my parents and I stayed with them while rebuilding myself emotionally. I was very aware that I wasn’t coming home to that which I longed for. It’s still hard, to be honest.”

The myth of Icarus was first popularised in Metamorphoses. In the ancient Greek story, Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax that kept his wings attached melting and causing him to plummet to his death. Spiritually, Alexander Gow flew on a similar trajectory and his sense of self and emotional wellbeing were shattered by the experience. His art soared, however. When We Talk about Love is one of the most heartfelt, desolate and beautiful albums you will hear. In every respect – songwriting, performance and sheer artistry – Gow has surpassed everything he’s ever done before. He may have paid a high psychic price, but he has achieved the transformation he sought.

1 . Arts diary

PERFORMANCE ART Marina Abramović: In Residence

Pier 2/3, Sydney, until July 5

BALLET Cinderella

Arts Centre, Melbourne, until June 27

DANCE 24 Frames Per Second

Carriageworks, Sydney, until August 3

OPERA Turandot

Sydney Opera House, June 24-August 28

2 . Last chance

VISUAL ART Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land

GOMA, Brisbane, until June 21

FAMILY Winter Magic Festival

Various venues, Katoomba, June 20

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2015 as "Tender Mercy".

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