Anyone with the slightest preference for melody and ingenuity – more specifically, melodic ingenuity – has reason to celebrate the impending arrival of a new solo album by Robert Forster, the one-time leader of Australia’s Go-Betweens. There have been other Aussie bands with far more commercial credence – AC/DC, Men at Work, and Little River Band come to mind – but none of them ever produced anything as exceptional or incisive as Forster and his colleagues Grant McLennan, Lindy Morrison, Robert Vickers, and Amanda Brown did in their prime. Certainly Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, and Kasey Chambers have come close, but in terms of an indelible impression, the Go-Betweens have earned special distinction as one of the most iconic outfits to ever emerge from Down Under. Their seminal ‘80s albums Send Me a Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah, and 16 Lovers Lane, not to mention their singles “Cattle and Cane,” “Lee Remick,” “Bachelor Kisses,” “Bye Bye Pride,” and “Streets of Your Town” rank, in my estimation, as some of the most cleverly compelling music of the past 30 years.
That assessment isn’t made lightly, I assure you. However it affirms the reason why any new effort from Forster is cause to take heed. With McLennan’s death from a heart attack in May 2006, Forster remains the Go-Betweens’ most prominent surviving member. He has six solo albums to his credit since 1990. Yet, his lack of prolific prowess – the new album, ironically dubbed Songs to Play, is his first outing in seven years – suggests he doesn’t exactly show cause for consistency.
It’s not that he’s been idle. Aside from overseeing a series of Go-Betweens box set anthologies – the multi-volume G Stands for Go-Betweens – he’s parlayed his talents into various forays as a producer, music critic, and writer, giving him a disparate focus that may have distracted him from any ongoing musical output. Nonetheless, Songs to Play more than lives up to its title, a collection of songs so unceasingly melodic, it’s almost as if they’ve been floating in the ether forever.
Newcomers ought to be impressed as much as his devotees, especially since Forster’s fondness for the artists that influenced him originally is all too obvious. Echoes of Lou Reed surface in the surprisingly self-effacing “I Love Myself (Always Have).” Robyn Hitchcock’s droll delivery is comes to mind with the low-key delivery Forster gives to “And I Knew.” Still, the most prominent presence is that of the Go-Betweens themselves, as evidenced in the understated irony of “Songwriters on the Run,” the thoughtful and considered “Let Me Imagine You,” and the measured, melancholy strains of “Turn on the Rain.” And if the kinetic shuffle of “I’m So Happy for You” doesn’t lift your spirits, chances are even a forklift wouldn’t do the trick.
All that and more mark Forster’s latest as a welcome return – one that deserves to be heeded and deemed some sort of special occasion. These are songs to play … over and over again.