If A Heart Could Think – Robert Forster’s “Songs To Play”

Robert Forster
Songs To Play
Tapete Records

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You can never be sure, exactly, why it happens with a select handful of artists, you just know it does because it always has. And because you’re not sure why you can’t know when it’s going to happen (or how often) but of course that’s part of the thrill, isn’t it? For me, on Robert Forster’s unassumingly-titled new album Songs To Play, it happens the first time a half measure into the second track “Let Me Imagine You” as, beneath the dry chime of an electric and the high clean pick of an acoustic a bass sounds, two tender plummy strokes that somehow glow with an instantly recognizable comfort and just like that a shiver runs up my back. It’s almost always such a reassuring voice, the bass, but never more so than on the records this man’s been a part of. I’d never realized this before but that one moment of quiet, unforced awe (or ‘ahh,’ if you like) opened up that understanding with the force of an epiphany. Unlocking the ‘why’ of that, what aesthetic mechanics are at work, is undoubtedly a fool’s errand – one might as easily try sculpting water as get to the nubbin of the creative process and one’s reaction to it – but forced to guess I’d offer that the bass’s tone and placement in a Robert Forster song, be it the Go-Betweens or solo, mirrors not only the warmth and familiarity that innately inhabits the man’s work but as well an intimate legacy, the kind that has the power to attach itself to each listener personally. Whatever constitutes the route from the ephemeral reaches of craft to the emotional core of human experience, this guy knows that path by heart, knows its every comic ironic twist, which makes sense, I suppose, since he’s walked it for nearly four decades now.

Another component of Forster’s work – again be it in his famous band or solo – is a kind of calm tonal balance, not just inside the songs themselves in terms of arrangement and musicianship but the totality of the record itself, how the tracks lean against each other, how the tracklisting overall is judicious in its distribution of varying tempos and themes. The austere hopefulness of “Let Me Imagine You” with its fleeting brush strokes of tambourined romantic nostalgia comes on the heels of the album-opening “Learn to Burn”‘s smile-inducing romp (it just feels so good to have that sound in your head again), all stately drive, flinty guitar leads, a gypsy violin, and lyrics rich with typically Forsteresque bon mots (“I mistook Memphis for a house in Surrey/you can miss detail when you’re in a hurry“) and precedes the sweetly wry “Songwriters on the Run,” whose seeming tongue-in-cheekness gives way to delicately harmonized (with violinist Karin Baumler) vignettes and snapshot memories glowing with a rural antipodean charm, complete with a lilting moment of back porch scatting. At once a straightforward narrative and an allegorical paean to longing wrapped inside the internal urgency of songwriting, it conjures the neat trick of being both restless and homey in spirit. That type of intrinsic ambiguity has been a key component of the guy’s work since the very beginning, of course, his ability to blend agile, sometimes astringent observation with an oh-so-human quiver of vulnerability the very quality that has established Forster’s status as an artist. As a pure songsmith Forster is arguably unparalleled and it’s no exaggeration to say those strengths have never been more on display as they are on Songs To Play. The record’s that good.

From the ever-budding thrum and wonder of “A Poet Walks” that layers astonishment on top of joy on top of a glorious corrido brass that bursts from the mix with a bright gleaming parp that was responsible for another shivery onset, to the sunny near-tropicalia swing and shuffle of “Love Is Where’s It Is” – warm and unalloyed – to “Turn on the Rain”‘s exquisite simplicity, the trembling violin, the unexpected Spector-like drum strikes (bedded in deep sonorous bass piano notes for good measure), the evidence flourishes. And those three I picked were more or less at random. I could just as easily have turned the spotlight on the tale of romantic destiny “And I Knew,” it’s closely-mic’ed strummed acoustic and minimal piano accents conveying with a sighing accuracy the majesty and humility of love at its most basic, stripped-down essence, or closing track “Disaster in Motion,” saturated with burnished sunset undertones, teetering lyrically on the edge of misfortune while retaining enough strength to not topple completely into the abyss before the song somehow resolves into something resembling celebration in its lengthy coda, “what we had” repeated over and over until an implied sense of gratitude has overtaken regret and loss.. Perhaps, though, the track that most needs not going unmentioned is the oddly-forthright-while-being-oddly-opaque “I Love Myself (and I Always Will),” wherein Forster hits resonant Forsterian chords that amount to what might be called a kind of self-iconoclastic comedy, its tangle of lines that split the difference between the stark and the absurd pointing to the complicated ego awareness we all walk around with and who else even comes close to writing songs that inspire a string of words like that?

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[photo courtesy The Guardian]

The defining, instinctive gist of Robert Forster’s songs defy easy description while appearing to be ostensibly so direct. They’re immediate, they’re archetypal. They’re opaque, they’re detached. They swirl around you in a comforting blur, landing oblique blows when you least expect it, feinting to the left when you’re anticipating a direct hit. They carry a commanding if often bewildering certainty, they’re the type songs that would result if a heart could think. Because the writing’s so good, the production so astute, it’s easy to get caught up in Songs To Play‘s singularly great groove before remembering anew, in a moment of astonished retrospect, that, until the untimely tragedy of Grant McLennan’s passing in 2006, Forster was once paired up in one of the greatest writing teams rock and roll has ever known. If recollection serves, one of them – likely Robert – in an NME piece some time in the mid-80’s, claimed that the two of them were every bit the songwriters that Lennon/McCartney had been. In the moment I rather scoffed at the hubris but as time has matured my outlook I’ve come to think he may have had a point. Listening back to either phase of their Go-Betweens output, or to each other’s solo work, um, in between, the songwriting, though less based in structural rock convention and therefore not as immediately accessible (especially in Robert’s case), is at least as strong and by most metrics more interesting, a conclusion that, if it was needed, Songs To Play does much to bolster.

It’s been seven years since Robert Forster’s last record (Evangelist), a gap much commented on but frankly, however long it takes for an album of this stature, that’s this deeply satisfying, to germinate, marinate, and come this beautifully to fruition, well for god’s sake take it. We’ll wait, we’ll always wait. Because we’re guaranteed a treasure every time, our eagerness will never abate.