here’s nothing foolish about the Go-Betweens’ remarkable consistency, but their arrangements sure could use some hobgoblins. That’s the impression I got from listening to their two reunion albums, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Bright Yellow Bright Orange, both of which included songs as good as their 1983-1988 heyday, both of which were marred by DIY production that betrayed their affinity for the grand gesture. But they’ve snapped out of it. Finally—a Go-Betweens album with the clarinet solos, harmonies, programmed drums, and splendor this band needs. Oceans Apart really sounds bright yellow and bright orange.
A reunion with producer Mark Wallis, who sheparded the verdant pastures of Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane, Oceans Apart is like Cinemascope to the underlit two-dimensional mise-en-scene of its two predecessors. Songwriter/guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are again leaders of a band instead of two middle-aged men uneasy before a microphone; their instruments and vocals mesh with Adele Pickvance’s bass and Glenn Thompson‘s drums in all the ways that count. “Born To A Family,” for one, shimmies in a twinkly way that honors the lyrics’ triumphalist sentiments. The first single “Here Comes The City” rocks like an outtake from Little Creatures-era Talking Heads, with a guitar sound straight out of Fear of Music and words from More Songs About Buildings and Food.
Notice that Forster wrote those songs. Around the time of 16 Lovers Lane, McLennan surrendered the autobiographical urgency that gave songs like “Cattle & Cane” the consistency of steel wool. Like a 19th century romantic poet he idled through vales and creeks, spiking his ever-more-beguiling melodies with elemental imagery: lots of lighting, water, fire, and air that smells of peppermint. The problem is, Grant didn’t meet any belles dames sans merci, which could account for the troubling lack of tension in his songwriting; he dredges tropes and catchphrases (“poison in the well,” “going blind,” “finding you”) from remembered hurt, and while a thing of beauty is a joy forever, forever is a mighty long time to rely on such commonplaces.
On Oceans Apart Wallis dresses McLennan’s tunes in most becoming finery. The use of reverb on “No Reason To Cry” lends the proper romantic frisson to the lyric, “You bit my tongue on Lisbon Road.” He even recovers a little of his ardor on “This Night’s For You,” on which he strums belligerent electric guitar over the chorus chord change as if, all these years later, he still believes “faithful” is not a bad word.
But it’s Forster whose command of the demotic honors the empyreal ambitions of Wallis’ arrangements. John Darnielle excepted, there isn’t a contemporary songwriter alive with his knack for deepening his art by recording the impressions of the inward eye (he makes confessional interlopers like Conor Oberst look especially bad). “Darlinghurst Nights,” an affectionate reverie of friends he left behind, is unmarred by condescension; the same could be said for “Born to a Family,” Forster’s own “Solsbury Hill,” in which the reticent wrinkle of his voice thanks the “family of honest workers” who represent where he came from and what he left behind.
Songs like these and McLennan’s “The Statue” (who else can deliver a line like “I can feel your touch in the blaze of noon” without winking?) represent just how much art you can uncover by simply sticking to it—that is, recognizing your strengths and writing to them. The only pox on such a masterful album is the distorted mastering, heard most audibly on McLennan’s songs. Call it a reminder that there’s a world beyond footprints, towers, and sea air. Thank God he’s got a partner to remind him.