Written by: Dave Cantrell
For forever I’ve wondered: How do they do that? How do they make the ‘deceptively simple’ so decidedly complex, full of humming nuance, heavy with innuendo that is more or less boldly spoken? How do they create these songs that quietly glow with what me might call an oblique clairvoyance, songs characterized by lyrics and modal contours that strike glancing emotional blows that, before we’ve even realized it, actually land like full-on punches? How do they take what is surely the deeply-ruminated personal and present it in such a way that it scans as universal?
While never, so far as I recall, actually articulated when Robert Forster and Grant McLennan arrived as the core of the Go-Betweens during the surging thick of the post-punk years – by 1983 the two would be supplemented by Lindy Morrison and Robert Vickers – and proceeded to capture (while also confounding) our hearts for the next decade plus, these are, it seems, the sorts of questions, born of wonder, that lie beneath our appreciation of the Go-Betweens and accounted for that delicious sense of the unsettled that their records often left us with.
This tendency their music has of sending us down that open-ended, quixotic pop path of inquiry has continued unabated across Grant’s and Robert’s solo albums, throughout of course the band’s second run from 2000 until McLennan’s sudden sad passing in 2006 and shows no sign of relenting on the forceful, eloquent Inferno. The album does, in fact, make a case for being Forster’s most singularly realized yet, there’s that type of capstone quality to it one might more often associate with a novelist or director – or, yes, a composer – at the matured crest of their powers.
It’s an assured command that captivates from the start. Mournfully hypnotic of pace, its sad bright piano runs shadowed in places by a longing violin a la Scarlet Rivera, opener “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgement” could well be Ennio Morricone had he been born a Brisbane-based songwriter. On the following “No Fame,” Forster both inhabits the house that Go-Betweens built and, in the song’s immoderately beautiful chorus, sings himself free of it with a near-falsetto riding the breeze. The gently percussive “Life Has Turned A Page” is the sort of concise, short-story-saga-in-a-song that no one’s ever done better only now it’s got that seasoning allotted by the years, regret tasting suspiciously like wisdom or is it the other way ’round? And speaking of which, the jauntily easy-rocking “I’m Gonna Tell It” teases out a similar life-lived narrative if in cagier, somewhat snarkier terms, the tell-all threatened but left at that, for now. Theme-wise, however, Inferno‘s most compelling tracks would have to be the two driven by the specter of a too-fast-approaching environmental calamity.
Proving (as if proof were needed) that intensity can manifest in rather wildly divergent forms, “Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)” and “One Bird in the Sky” are each eloquently fervent in their way. The former, coming early in the tracklist, pounds its climate change fear, anger, and despair into a clanging dark joy that rocks like Ronson-era Bowie, lines such as ‘can’t lift a finger, dreaming of ice / the photo you sent me, out the window at the snow / well it looks like paradise‘ – followed shortly thereafter by ‘do you remember winter at all?‘ – set against Jerry Lee piano banging and hot lick electric guitar work as brash as 1970 Detroit. In contrast, “One Bird in the Sky,” closing the album, places itself in what seems an oddly pacific aftermath. If there’s such a thing as a sweet note of post-apocalyptic loneliness (and/or loveliness, for that matter), it hits it. Allegorical in the gentlest – and thereby most devastating – way, it’s an acoustic ballad that, sort of by self-contained definition, ends all acoustic ballads. Heart heavy, its spirit light, ending tenderly on the precipice, the song, as much as anything, the sigh of an ultimate fatalistic acceptance writ intimate.
And so we’re brought to the end. Reflective even at its most buoyant (with the vice as surely versa as it’s ever been), Inferno finds this artist, as he’s always done, with his writing partner and since, leaving us hanging in a balance where the answers are as evident as the questions are – fatally – inscrutable, and much if not nearly all of that is down to the mixture of poise and distantly nagging doubt in these songs’ delivery, almost teasing in the way they embrace a firmly determined moral ambivalence.
What we’re left with, then, is another version of those ponderings up top that presents something like this: How does this sui generis songwriting voice – there’s really none other like it – sound, simultaneously, so everyday approachable? In the same breath Robert Forster is easily able to come across as one’s warmest buddy that just happens to possess a scorpion’s sting. How does he do that?
That’s rhetorical, of course, as no one has an answer to that question nor the others initially posed including the artist himself and surely this is happily as it should be, the mystery remaining the mystery. While Robert Forster is, without argument and as further confirmed by Inferno, one of our most accomplished songwriters, he may also very well be the music world’s most well-grounded enigma.