RUGGED UP IN HIS SCARF, heavy jacket and head down against today’s brutal wind (gotta love a Melbourne spring!) as he walks home in the early evening, Alexander Gow looks like one of those earthy figures of the early ‘70s folk/pop scene more than the wryly crumpled, hooded-eyed man we’ve come to know as Oh Mercy.
Maybe the kind of man who would make an album – the first under his own name in a 15-year career – that has you feeling like you’ve been in a deep bath, then wrapped in a warm towel and had someone stroke hair gently.
“And you are in a pair of cheap flannel pyjamas,” laughs Gow.
Hell no: expensive thick, soft wool. Gow’s just released Dizzy Spell is the kind of record you prepare a listener for by saying I’m just gonna slip into something comfortable.
“I wanted it to sound beautiful and any intentional friction I wanted to lie in the harmonic changes or the lyrics,” says the man himself. “I wanted the music to be gorgeous, frictionless, and that would hopefully allow space for some of that to shine through in the words rather than compete with each other.”
Gow recalls how he played an early version of the record to that veteran producer of ye olde quality pop records, Mitchell “Crowded House, Ron Sexsmith, Paul McCartney etc etc” Froom, and the American said “this sounds seductive, make sure every decision you make only elevates that sense”. This became a guiding principle.
But the new record didn’t come from received wisdom, nor, strictly speaking, from some acquired wisdom for the mid-30s Gow; it came from technology. Or the absence of it.
“It’s my seventh record, five as Oh Mercy and one I did during lockdown as Perfect Moment, and I think the technology defined the sound of the record,” says Gow. “As far as I could tell, and I think I was proved correct, the best way to use the technology that I had available to me – which was a four track, half inch tape machine from the early 70s – the best way to allow it to sing, was gentle sounds: acoustic guitars, pianos, and my voice. And I sang quietly too.
“I think that that allowed me to get the best out of equipment. And when I realised that, I started to enjoy it and before long it defined the sound of the record. I guess I pushed and pushed that idea to see how beautiful I could make it.”
Ok, he will concede there was some wisdom, or at least self-knowledge, involved.
“I’m in my mid-30s now and I feel comfortable with my sense of self, and I don’t know if anyone else can relate to this but in my 20s I was exploring and pushing boundaries of expression and self-identity and with that came experimenting with sounds: fooling around with aggressive sounds; enormous stadium reverbs; hi-fi production. And this one was like, hey, it’s just me in my front room and I’m in no rush.
“I already knew I was gonna put it out under my own name and I was like, well, if you are going to be the white male with his acoustic guitar and his emotions and requesting people to pay attention to you, you might as well go all out.”
If some of these phrases are activating warning lights for you, triggering even, you may be like me and extremely wary to the point of grinding horror at what I’ve come to call the Soft Boys: the pseudo-sensitive, herbal-scented, I-surf-and-I-hurt pack of nice chaps, with nice voices, and nice songs whose stuck-on “emoting” has given men with acoustic guitars the worst reputation. You know who they are.
Gow, whose first album was titled Privileged Woes as a self-described “eye roll at myself” for claiming special status as a white boy with a guitar, is not one of them.
Dizzy Spell is more emotionally detailed and far less musically manipulative than those fakers. It’s not just about being quiet or look at me I was bruised by love, it’s about tone and intent. And unlike the cursed Soft Boys – who should never be confused with Robyn Hitchcock’s great post-punk band The Soft Boys – it can be pretty funny, opening with the Swiftian (Jonathan, not Taylor) A Modest Proposal with lines like “Love me/Long before you love yourself/Long before you make your bed/Before you attend to your many needs/Before you feed the cat/And run the bath/I want to bathe in the proceeds.”
“After my second record as Oh Mercy, Great Barrier Grief, I realised that I was ending up being in the same playlists and used in the same sentences as probably the artists you’re thinking of. I was like, as a 22-year-old, ‘no no no no’. So what I did next was Deep Heat which was this bombastic, over-the-top record, because I didn’t at that point have the ability and the skill and the focus and understanding to make Dizzy Spell.
“My reaction back then was to run, and this time it was like, now I can just refine and help people draw a line of differentiation between me and those Soft Boys.”
Dizzy Spell is out now, and available on vinyl through Impressed Recordings.