If you discovered Oh Mercy on the back of Paul Kelly’s glowing recommendation, then the Melbourne quartet’s latest album, ‘Deep Heat’, is going to come as something of a shock.
"I was a little bit fatigued by the whole 'serious singer-songwriter' thing," says frontman Alexander Gow, going some way towards explaining how his band has produced an album you can (and should) dance to.
"I adore Bob Dylan, we named our band after [his album], I love Neil Young and Leonard Cohen — I mean, who doesn't — but I also love heaps of other stuff. I think people expect certain things from us, but that's not necessarily where we're at.
"I think my greatest fear is people thinking they've worked me out, thus worked Oh Mercy out, and they know what to expect. That's something that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
"So I figured if I could follow up the last album [2011's 'Great Barrier Grief'] with another one fairly quickly that was a lot different, then people might shake those preconceived ideas off and accept Oh Mercy as something that's going to be around a little while and surprise them every 18 months or so."
This time around, the surprise comes courtesy of an extended Jorge Ben binge. Gow immersed himself in the Brazilian samba and bossa nova mastermind's catalogue 18 months ago, and hasn't grown weary of it yet.
"He's got a record called 'Forca Bruta'," Gow raves, "which is my favourite album of all time, easily. I heard that about 18 months ago and I've probably listened to it every single day. I learnt some of his songs, and the thing about that bossa nova and samba music is that it uses a lot of minor seventh chords, chords I already really loved.
"I already loved that stuff, but I needed a different approach to it... I would encourage anyone to download or buy — or whatever it is you do — Jorge Ben's 'Forca Bruta', because it's totally changed my life, and I really mean that."
The Brazilian influence extends to the carnival-themed album artwork, which was supplied by the late, great Rennie Ellis' estate.
"We had Ken Done do the last [cover]," Gow remembers, "which was a stroke of luck that I'm really appreciative of, and that meant we were at a point where we could approach other 'famous', for lack of a better word, and important Australian artists about doing the cover. We'd kind of raised ourselves onto some sort of platform where we could raise that question with people.
"I went to art school for a little while, and studied a lot of the work of a guy called Rennie Ellis, who was an Australian photographer in the '70s and '80s who mostly did social documentary stuff. I always loved his work and I wanted a photograph on this album cover, so we got in touch with his people. He's been dead for almost ten years, but the people who run his estate were really lovely and understood where I was coming from. They basically said, 'here's his catalogue, have a look'.
"He's done some iconic shots of Kings Cross and places like that, and that's the stuff most people know him for, as well as what I knew him for. But we'd done the whole Australiana thing with Ken, and I thought it might be time to break away from that, just as an aesthetic point of difference to keep myself interested. So we chose a shot that happened to be of Carnivale and suited my recent Jorge Ben binge. It's just fun and sexy, like the album is, and that's why it works for me. Hopefully that comes across, but we'll wait and see."
The album is every bit as fun and sexy as advertised, but that's not to say Gow put any less effort into the lyrics than usual. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"In a lot of my favourite stuff from the late '70s and early '80s, stuff that I think sounds great at a party, the lyrics are neglected," Gow says. "I don't know why. Maybe it's because lots of the major labels were encouraging big hits... and when people are encouraging you to make hits, they want generic, universal lyrics that every man and his dog can relate to, because that's what sells records.
"I know when I'm playing those particular songs, whether I'm hunched into a corner of the room with an iPod at a party or at a bar DJing or whatever, I've always thought, 'jeez, why couldn't they just try a little bit harder with the words?'
"If only that A&R person wasn't over their shoulder while they were writing the words, maybe we would have had something a little more interesting, something that could satisfy both worlds, musical and lyrical. So that had a lot to do with the way I approached making this album, you know? Something that would make you want to move, but something that would also make you stop at some point and go, 'hang on, should I be dancing to this?'"
As opposed to the autobiographical nature of 'Great Barrier Grief' (and its predecessor, 2009's 'Privileged Woes'), 'Deep Heat' finds Gow looking outside of himself for stimulation.
Lead-off single 'Drums' takes the myth of Hero and Leander as its jumping-off point, for example, and Ovid's 'Metamorphosis' is a recurring source of inspiration throughout the LP. Of course, it's something of a false dichotomy to approach Gow's lyrics in terms of 'fiction' and 'non-fiction'.
"That's spot-on," he agrees. "Even if I picked up a book in a library, randomly, there'd always be something that pricked my ears up; there'd always be a reason I'd relate to that particular sentiment because of something in my life. So it's always a full circle... 90 percent of the songs on this record are fictional, but as you touched on, they're all things I'm interested in personally. So, you know, it's still me. It's just me."
‘Deep Heat’ is released on August 24. Oh Mercy play The Zoo September 21 and Joe’s Waterhole September 22. Alexander Gow performs at Little BIGSOUND at The Judith Wright Centre on September 15.