Ninth effort from the revitalised Brisbane veterans
“Wave after wave,” sang Robert Smith from the sunken canoe of the Go-Betweens’ pop career in 1988, “your tension and your tenderness.” Those words might capture the rare balance the band struck through the 1980s. The tenderness in their facility to knock out a perfectly heartwrecking ballad at the slip of a stetson. The tension in their knowledge that they had to strive for more, to hit the charts, or at least be fit to follow in the boho sneakers of Smith or Verlaine.
By 2003’s Bright Yellow, Bright Orange that tension was long gone, the double-act resigned to autumnal acoustics. Even Forster seemed to acknowledge this: “Trapped in an image, unable to move/I want to get out of folk and into rare groove”. You could imagine him and Grant McLennan living out their afternoons, trading wry rhymes on some Brisbane porch. This was how the band ends: not with a bang, but with the swish of a finished kiss.
So it’s good news that “Here Comes A City”, Forster’s opening track of Oceans Apart, goes screeching away from that backporch at great speed, heading somewhere where people “who read Dostoevsky look like Dostoevsky”. The band sounds re-energised by an idea of the city, the marketplace, pop ambition. You can hear it on a couple of other Forster tracks: “Lavender” and, especially, “Darlinghurst Years”. The latter starts off as a sick Sydney sister to 1987’s “The House That Jack Kerouac Built”, except here Forster sounds giddy at the thought of that demi-monde decadence, the traffic, the cello playing through the nights, as discordant brass wails and wells through his reveries. McLennan too, so often the soft balladeer, now sounds positively wracked. “The Statue” and “This Night’s For You” could be the strongest songs he’s ever written: shimmering, synthetic, noir torch songs of longing and regret.
Harvard academic Stanley Cavell coined the phrase “the comedy of remarriage” to describe those 1930 screwball movies whose couples conclude that settling down quietly is for chumps and resolve to live out their lives in disputatious adventure. With Oceans Apart, The Go-Betweens reunion, which once seemed a sweet, sighing coda, now promises to be similarly lively. Sometimes you really do need two heads.
By Stephen Trousse