The first time I heard Alex Gow was by accident. The quartet with which the Melburnian first made his name was on tour with Ben Folds, opening to half-empty rooms of keen beans who walked out into the foyer during the intermission in a sort of daze, looking at at one another as if to say bloody hell, that was something, wasn’t it?
Early Oh Mercy acolytes were on the money. At a time in which most antipodean bands were trying to sound like they were from Paris or Berlin, Gow and his variously rotating personnel were never concerned with anything other than writing classic songs that evoked the endless longing of Australian summers and requisite music of the late Fraser years. Their frontman would go onto release five increasingly classic records. Working with various high class personnel, they showcased the breadth of his talent, winning him coveted pointy statues and significant critical acclaim in the process.
Now, after some dabbling with various monikers, Gow steps out under his own name with Dizzy Spell. It’s a beautiful record, one that as soon as we heard it, we knew had to be pressed to vinyl. Certain albums just deserve to be listened to languorously. If you’re reading this, you definitely know what I mean.
Songs seem to pour out of the man. In the process of making this album, he decided he liked some others that he had lying around more so he re-recorded and substituted them. I won’t tell you which ones they are. Craft is also important to him.You can hear it in the way he cuts his records. Guitars don’t strum like that on their own. Big, dramatic left hand piano echoes aren’t by chance.
I ask Jack Ladder, one of Gow’s musical contemporaries, what it is about Alex’s songwriting that just hits the mark every time. ‘Alex drops words into melodies like a postman delivering mail,’ he says.‘It’s easy for him because he knows where you live, and he’s walked down your street a thousand times.’
There’s something in that, I think. When you drop the needle on an album and it feels like you already know it, that the writer al- ready knows you. Such effortlessness is both baked-in and hard won.While it’s undeniable that Gow has been slipping pop songs into our cultural letterbox for the better part of 15 years, never have their contents felt quite so alluring.
When you choose to buy a record like this, people will ask you for your favourite track and the correct answer is the entire thing, goddamn, which is really the only response, but I know how some people are. So let me give you a crib note that will really help you blow some minds.
It’s called ‘You’re So Funny’ and it’s the tenth track. Side B. It might be the best thing Gow has ever written, Rufus Wainwright doing The Go Betweens. That vocal with those piano chords, it’s just completely transfixing. You might harbour the same opinion about any of the other eleven here, which you’re well entitled to. That’s what musical appreciation is all about.
Speaking of which, Robert Foster says this record ‘is filled with good songs.’ He would know.
Alex ended up playing some big shows as Oh Mercy, but this feels like a clutch of songs that belongs behind a piano in a small bar. That’s not to insinuate that the scope of the writing is somewhat lesser in scale; quite the contrary. But you know when you see your favourite act in a larger venue and you sacrifice that closeness? That’s not something I want here. I need to be roundly enveloped by these songs. It is direct, it is clear, it is talking to me, as it will no doubt soon talk to you.
There are few instruments that Gow hasn’t mastered, but those he hasn’t he gives to the masterful. Paul Kelly’s drummer. The pedal steel player from The Triffids. He told me he recorded the entire thing on a 4-track from the 1970s, which sounds about right.You can hear elements of it creep through in a few tracks. It’s the sort of vintage aesthetic that every software plug-in on Earth offers, but only the real deal will render effectively.
It took me half an hour to become a fan of Alex’s work, a love affair that’s now lasted nearly two decades. I’m so glad we have the opportunity to get this brilliant new record into the hands of real music lovers, many of whom I’m sure already have their own stories of how Gow’s voice and music has altered their lives. And for those of you about to embark on your first outing into the plush, dark corners of Gow’s universe, you are in for a serious treat.
Cook yourself something decadent. Pour a glass of wine. This is the moment.