When Grant McLennan passed away suddenly in 2006, the Australian group the Go-Betweens, one of the greatest bands -- perhaps the greatest band -- of the original indie pop era lost one of its two songwriters and vocalists. Robert Forster, the band's other lead half, lost his most important musical partner and foil. Forster was the more erudite and conceptually ambitious of the two in his lyric concerns, walking the musical line between Jack Kerouac's desolation, William Butler Yeats' romanticism, and Kris Kristofferson's observational acumen of loss and the willingness to reflect upon it. McLennan was earthier, rooted deep in everyday life, in the news, and in urban myth as metaphor -- he created a simply direct kind of elegance in his songs where love, landscape, and the inner workings of both heart and mind were held in equal balance even if he was looking outside the first person. Certainly he had his influences, but they were colored over by his ability to communicate simply, directly. His romantic songs captured within them the sheer artfulness of the moment when meaning opens into epiphany. The Go-Betweens were one of those bands that knew when they hit the wall -- right after their masterpiece, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988. They went on a 12-year hiatus, returning with Friends of Rachel Worth, and were gloriously active until McLennan's passing.
During the 1990s, both songwriters released solo records. Each of them issued four albums, though one by Forster -- 1995's I Had a New York Girlfriend -- was a covers record. Intermission, a double-disc collection on Beggar's Banquet, documents the solo albums beautifully, giving each songwriter a single and separate disc. The package is accompanied by a very handsome lyrics booklet and comes in a slipcase. Planned before his death, one of McLennan's last musical acts was to choose the 13 songs for his volume. Presented in this way, as opposed to pairing up individual albums or contrasting the Go-Betweens songs to highlight their differences, makes it possible for listeners to consider each man as an artist in his own right.
Forster wisely chose four cuts each from his Danger in the Past debut and Calling from a Country Phone, three from Warm Nights, a cover of the late Mickey Newbury's "Frisco Depot," and the original version of "Falling Star." Forster's gentility walks the line between rock, pop, and a kind of particularly Australian country-folk-rock. He offers stories of broken love, missed opportunities, and malaise, though somehow, because of his acumen with writing hooks and melodies, these never seem particularly dour or depressing. As for quality, this really is the best of the best. He has chosen to include the demo and released versions of "Falling Star," which -- despite the words remaining the same -- are very different songs. Also here are the gorgeous "Baby Stones," the 12-string-drenched "The River People," and the bluesy rocker "121." His reading of "Frisco Depot" is the best version done outside of Newbury's, period.
McLennan's volume is a wide-ranging and restless set, containing three cuts each from 1991's Watershed, 1994's Fireboy, and 1997's In Your Bright Ray, and four from 1994's brilliant Horsebreaker Star. Interestingly, here is another contrast -- while McLennan sequenced his songs chronologically, Forster did not, choosing an aesthetic order instead. There's a lot of first-person narrative here. "Easy Come, Easy Go" features a Rickenbacker electric 12-string guitar, a Wurlitzer, crackling snare drums, and a simple bassline -- all that's needed to illustrate a song about detachment, where the protagonist moves between what he's learned and passing it on to another. The spooky "I'll Call You Wild" is an allegorical morality tale, first-person Jungian analysis, and archetypal love song. "The Dark Side of Town" is one of the great rootsy pop songs that's rarely been heard, with its blend of gentle keyboards (representing a flügelhorn) and airy layered guitars. "Black Mule" is almost a country song, but its six-string guitar hook is infectious; its refrain is so simple, like something from Bob Dylan -- especially with the harmonica fill that precedes the second and third verses. Even jaunty tunes with drum loops, such as "Surround Me," are perfect in their laid-back expressionism, balanced emotional equity, and utter hunger for fulfillment.
Unfortunately, neither Forster's nor McLennan's albums are in print in America, and haven't been for quite some time; they fetch hefty prices when one can find them at all. It's too bad, because this easy shuffling pop
ock accenting hooks and melody with lyric content doesn't get overly bogged down in imagery or artifice (although they are certainly used potently), despite their different styles. This set is, in its way, as important as the Go-Betweens' later albums at the very least. They began in the wake of a dry spell for the group, and ended up as beautiful, moving, and idiosyncratic portraits of each man as an individual artist, as both writer and recording artist -- and eventually led them to perform together and finally re-form the band. This volume is as good as it's going to get for a bit and should be pursued by anyone ever interested in the Go-Betweens, sure -- but even more so, interested in truly great pop songwriting that is timeless despite genre, period, down under locale, and, in this century, relative -- and certainly undeserved -- obscurity.