When we last saw Oh Mercy, front man Alex Gow was accepting a well-deserved ARIA Award for their previous effort, When We Talk About Love (2015). Well, the beloved Melbourne indie band are back again, this time with their highly anticipated fifth studio album, Café Oblivion. This album takes on probably the most personal representation of Gow, now 30 years of age, who admits it’s some of the work he’s most comfortable with – so much so, we even see him on the cover for the first time. This isn’t so surprising considering he is the primary songwriter, founding musician and only real constant member of Oh Mercy. However, this personal representation strikes as slightly odd, even somewhat paradoxical given Oh Mercy’s history. Gow told journalists several years ago that he wasn’t going to write melancholic ballads any more. His proceeding output, most notably on Deep Heat (2012), took a seemingly abrupt U-turn into a world in which Gow refused to sing from his own perspective and instead wrote about fictionalised characters. But while Gow insists he no longer has anything left to prove, this new album gives off the vibe that there’s still boundaries to transcend and to explore.
Keeping the electric indie-pop flame alive, Café Oblivion is what you get when you put playful in audio form. It’s full of charisma and confidence, and for the most part, quality composition. Driven by Australian guitar ballads, the album might be a reflection of being written on home soil as opposed to When We Talk About Love, an album written in solitary in America. After such success on the previous album, producer Scott Horscroft again joins Oh Mercy on the album and is integral to the its overall sound and feel. This time around, Gow and Horscroft have assembled a rhythm section comprising two renowned Sydney-based musicians, in singer/songwriter Donny Benét on bass and accomplished session drummer Laurence Pike (PVT). We hear the influence of Burt Bacharach’s sweet melodies again, as with Oh Mercy’s precursors and it shares similar orchestral sounds.
Gow has again become an observer of sorts, creating characters, personalities and stories within his music. The rich descriptive lyrics pay homage to one of Gow’s favourite bands, The Waterboys and this influence is strong throughout. Café Oblivion brings with it references to the likes of psychedelic imagery, villains, Gods, Australian sporting personalities and marsupials, instead of tales of love and loss heard in many of the previous albums. Beginning on a high, the opening track takes on the form of the album’s infectious second single, “Keep A Light On”. It’s a beautiful and easy listen with a comprehensive soundscape. Graham Lee provides the goods with a gorgeous pedal steel guitar twang.
Following this track is the upbeat song “Hot Topic” which squirms with all kinds of piano and organ sounds in addition to the occasional overt sexual innuendo, “She’ll make you come, but man you’re already there.” Backup female vocalists join Gow on this track to offset his signature voice. Midway into the album, we are transported into a more blissful state with the first single of the album, “National Park”, released in August last year. Mixing it up, there’s even some terrific and quite distinctive harmonica in “Ring & The Jewel”, whilst the slower “Nancy & Lee” celebrates Sinatra and Hazlewood’s collaboration with a romantic, almost cinematic feel.
Closing the album are tracks “Crocodile Meat” and “Restless Woman”. The steady “Crocodile Meat” blossoms into an absolute jam, with psychedelic undertones to it which you could say reflects the absurdity of the lyrics. The outro of the song feels all too perfect, playing on the name of the track and hitting you like an alligator roar. “Restless Woman” brings us back down to Earth a little with a slightly more mellow song. It closes the album on a calmer note after the roller coaster cacophony of sounds. That being said, this particular track really showcases the extent of Gow’s vocal range in a way we haven’t heard before.
Oh Mercy‘s fifth studio album, Café Oblivion certainly has a charm to it that holds onto the listener. It seems that Gow made a decidedly conscious effort to try hard not to take himself seriously, with experiments both lyrically and musically dotted throughout. It’s the kind of album that gets better with every listen – uncovering layers you may not have heard on the first visit. A ‘dinner and a show’ kind of album, Café Oblivion gives meaning to the idea that with age and experience comes quality, because Gow just seems to be getting better.