Robert Forster and Grant McLennan
or all the prose designed to render the Go-Betweens as immortals, it’s refreshing that their actual records refute this notion so forcefully. Crass and inexplicable song choices sully most of their work (Before Hollywood, 16 Lovers Lane, and 2005’s valedictory Oceans Apart are their most seamless collections). Still, as miniaturists with affinities for the grand gesture, Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan made their failures endearing; songwriters as committed to bullseye representations of emotional states will often let these emotional states muddle their thinking, and good for them. As dedicated as they were to songwriting, they were equally devoted to being humans—uncommonly intelligent humans perhaps, as it’s rare to find any two men, artistic or otherwise, with such a distrust of the numinous. Romance is hard enough without worrying about damnation, and plenty enrapturing without transcendence.
You would expect that, following the usual pattern, Forster and McLennan’s solo work would indulge their worst vices. Forster’s dour streak produced songs with a rather pinched sonic range, and McLennan’s pained poptimism congealed into three-minute baubles in which he embedded an undeveloped metaphor in an unforgettable melody. The devoted listener (who else?) won't be surprised to find these mistakes on Intermission, the double album compilation (one disc per person) of their post-Go-Betweens best, selected by Forster and McLennan themselves. But there's one more surprisingly grievous one: in this context, they're horribly dull. Following a Grant number with one by Robert on those group albums produced the friction on which their artistry thrived; they were ideal platonic lovers, shaping dialogues intended for the eye, ear, and imagination of the other (the transition from Forster's "Lavender" to McLennan's "The Statue" on Oceans Apart will have you drawing breaths). By splitting their largely excellent songs into two discrete entities, Intermission feels like a harsh last will and testament, one you would have thought their creators would have contested.
The chronologically sequenced McLennan disc reinforces the suspicion that happiness numbed the catchy Go-Between’s muse. It isn’t a problem on the selections from Watershed, whose “Haven’t I Been A Fool?” lodges itself in the brain despite the yep-it’s-1991 drum program; but four years separate the recordings of “Surround Me” and “In Your Bright Ray,” four years during which McLennan perfected the craft of marrying an evocative title to a strummed guitar hook and not much else. This isn’t entirely fair to Horsebreaker Star, on which R.E.M. collaborator Don Dixon injected welcome country grit into his boss’ rote sound and produced the best Go-Between solo album, but that’s the problem with compilations: gestalt and flow are sacrificed to the risible capitalist idea of “highlighting strengths.” Thankfully, McLennan had the good sense to include the desperate, piano-anchored “Lightning Fires” and the deceptively cheerful narrative “Black Mule,” which the Go-Betweens themselves were performing at their 2005 concerts.
As for Forster, he was just as adept at crafting hooks, yet more apt to punish himself for coming up with them, like a friar kneeling for hours after eyeing a shapely abbess. What a pity that “Baby Stones” never complemented McClennan’s “Haven’t I Been A Fool”! Little of his solo work matched the confidence with which Forster talk-sings over the piano, violin, and organ washes of this 1991 single, although “The Circle,” a warning against incestuous group dating, comes close (“droll” is the operative word for Forster’s solo work). Still, the song that makes the deepest impression is, like McLennan’s “Black Mule,” the one the band still performed with gusto: the self-explanatory “Danger in the Past,” which has acquired a chilling poignancy since McLennan’s death. Call it a response to the moral of “Black Mule”: there’s danger in nostalgia, uncertainty about the future, and death ready to claim another friend unawares. Not much smart guys can do about it, of course; songwriting is as much a gesture of mourning as any.