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The seventh Go-Betweens album was supposed to be called Freakchildor Perfumed, Poisoned and Damaged. It was supposed to be easy and unadornedor brittle and dense. It was supposed to strengthen the band’s bid for pop acceptanceor turn it away from the charts altogether. Unsurprisingly, it never came off.
According to David Nichols’ 1997 bio of the ’80s Australian cult and critical faves, Robert Forster wanted to record semilive with Bad Seed Mick Harvey in either Berlin or Sydney. The rest of the band, including the other front man, Grant McLennan, leaned toward making a successor to 16 Lovers Lane, the lush, heavily produced 1988 LP the group cut for Capitol. But there were money worries; though Forster and McLennan could afford to keep a band on salary, the group had never been a real commercial success. And there was internal friction, both romantic (Forster and drummer Lindy Morrison had once been a couple; McLennan and violinist, oboist, and arranger Amanda Brown still were one) and non- (the McLennan-Brown axis had shifted power and attention away from Forster; the girls at times aligned against the boys; multi-instrumentalist/substance abuser John Willsteed, who had joined for Lovers Lane, slagged the band’s best work in the press). At one point, the two singer-songwriters discussed an acoustic outing that wouldn’t include the rest of the group.
In 1990, the band broke up. Forster went to Germany to make his record with Harvey; McLennan put together his own solo debut in Sydney. Throughout the ’90s, the two pursued separate careers, though they paired up to play a few shows and write a screenplay. They toured during the summer of 1999, just the two of them, under their own names. This February, they went into the studio in Portland, Ore., accompanied by Quasi (drummer Janet Weiss and keyboardist Sam Coomes) and bassist Adele Pickvance. Weiss’ Sleater-Kinney bandmates, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, made guest appearances (although only the intro of a song they didn’t play on sounds at all S-K-ish), as did cellist Brent Arnold and violinist Jen Chorowhas. Twelve years after Lovers Lane, we’ve finally got that seventh album.
Like all Forster-McLennan efforts, The Friends of Rachel Worth reveals itself slowly, but it ultimately gels into the closest thing we’re going to get to the confident, consistently listenable pop record we always heard they were going to make. The Go-Betweens have given up on souring the milk and complaining that the ice-cream crowd doesn’t like it. They’re still skewing the pop formula, but they’re no longer trying to impress the wrong people. Surrounded by a generation of musicians who grew up on the Go-Betweens, Forster and McLennan have made a record for their loyal supporters.
The most common criticism of the new album is that it sounds not like a band effort, but like two intertwined solo EPs. If that’s soand it isit’s worth noting how carefully the record has been sequenced. Program your CD player to sift McLennan’s songs from Forster’s and the album gets wobbly. As it stands, the disc opens with two folky, semi-acoustic love songs (McLennan’s “Magic in Here,” Forster’s “Spirit”), followed by two rockers about the liberating effects of displacements in time and place, respectively (McLennan’s “The Clock,” Forster’s “German Farmhouse”). Then the thematic kinships grow, even as the stylistic ones shrink: Two songs that cloak alienation in domestic garb (Forster’s “He Lives My Life,” McLennan’s “Heart and Home”) precede two that, in typically Australian fashion, view the coast as the site of freedom and rebirth (Forster’s “Surfing Magazines,” McLennan’s “Orpheus Beach”). In each of these last two pairs, Forster is concerned about losing a way of life; McLennan, a way of love. The disc closes with a pair of abstract chastisements (McLennan’s “Going Blind,” Forster’s “When She Sang About Angels”).
If my thumbnail sketches seem a little fuzzy, there’s a reason. Precisely pitched vagueness is a Go-Betweens forte. Forster and McLennan are imagistic obscurantists. The hazy meanings their songs assume as they seep in with repeated listening dissolve under analysis.
The best Go-Betweens songs have always been difficult. Unassimilability is the band’s calling card to the true believer, its Achilles’ heel to the casual listener. This resistance to perfect pop isn’t a matter of dogged perversity; flirtations with more obvious sounds just haven’t worked out so well. Back in the early days, when Forster was writing almost all of the group’s songs, he could effortlessly lay down a perky, quirky pop-punk number like “Lee Remick,” released in 1978 on the Able label. Appealing but slight, it was mere confection. Years later, when McLennan stepped out on his own, he proved capable of shimmering vacuities such as “One Million Miles From Here,” from 1993’s Fireboy.
Rachel Worth is filled with lovely melodies, but you may not realize it until you start singing them yourself, liberating them from the flattened, declamatory delivery of Forster and McLennan. They want you to make their songs your ownbut you have to earn them.
You have to work McLennan’s poppy choruses free from the prickly verses that set them up. On “Magic in Here,” bald aaaa rhymes, underpinned by a flat-footed bass line, feed into a limpid, supple chorus that adopts a bbb scheme only after it has played into your pop wishes. The verses of “Heart and Home” stage more games with rhymes, packing them closer together, then splitting them apart; the chorus takes simplicity to an extreme: “Ba, ba, ba/There’s ice around your heart, my home/Ba, ba, ba/There’s ice around your heart, my home.” Perhaps because McLennan used to play bass in the band, on “Orpheus Beach,” again it’s Pickvance’s line that sets the tone, worrying a sinister minor third; when the brief, glowing chorus hits, almost two minutes in, she plays up and down its relative major. McLennan works a similar minor-major trick in “The Clock,” reinforcing it with arty, atmospheric images that skirt pretentiousness (another Go-Betweens specialty), then yield to one more simple, repetitive, cloudless chorus: “But then the clock turns/And it’s now/And it’s you/But then the clock turns/And it’s now/And it’s you.”
As for Forster’s songs, you simply must stick with them straight through. He eschews verse-chorus-verse writing on the lilting “Spirit” and the swaggering yet tongue-in-cheek “German Farmhouse.” He picks up and dismisses rhyme at whim, and when he does choose to go after it, as often as not he achieves it by repeating words exactly. He enjoys harsh metrical juxtapositions, following a line of three syllables with one of 15. Even when his structures are more traditional than McLennan’s, he displays a greater lyrical range than his partner, moving from brisk summertime nostalgia on “Surfing Magazines” to resigned yearning on “He Lives My Life,” a song he and McLennan previewed at the 9:30 Club during last year’s tour.
The flip side of “Lee Remick” was “Karen,” an ode to librarians so indebted to Patti Smith that any minute you expected someone to get slammed against the stacks and pig-stuck with a shiv. (It owes as much to the Modern Lovers, but they’re tougher for a serious lad to sanctify with a straight face.) On “When She Sang About Angels,” Forster takes up his admiration for, and his ambivalence toward, his former muse. He references her penchants for name-dropping, blunt gesturing, and awkward elegy, but his mantra is “I let it go by.” In his eyes, the authority of her presence earns her license as an artist.
Andy Warhol (or Marshall McLuhanpick your attribution) once said that art is whatever you can get away with. But now that the Go-Betweens are comfortable with who they are, they’re not trying to get away with as much. Aside from the verses of “The Clock,” nothing on Rachel Worth ventures close to the brink. The exhilaration of listening to old Go-Betweens records lay, in part, in hearing the band blow right past things you figured would bring them down.
The main failing of Nichols’ bio is that it regards the Go-Betweens as more a social entity than a musical one. But when I place Rachel Worth next to Lovers Lane, its rather unimmediate predecessor, I can’t avoid thinking that the internecine struggles of the ’80s version of the band were a goad to greatness. Everyone was alert, pushing forward, jockeying for position. Morrison was edged out by producer Mark Wallis’ preference for programmed rhythms, but Lovers Lane is as much Brown’s and Willsteed’s as it is Forster’s and McLennan’s.
Unlike many similarly run bands, the old Go-Betweens were never really hurt by democracy, at least on record. Out in the real world of loyalties and enmities, of course, equality tore the group apart. But the new Go-Betweens are governed by a tag-team monarchy. It is the fact that Pickvance, Coomes, and Weiss are tractable sidemen, not importunate principals, that elicits comparisons between Rachel Worth and Forster’s and McLennan’s solo work. The current batch of Torieswhich I have trouble imagining as a fixed lineup, even in the short term, given the multiple commitments of Weiss and Coomessounds as if it always knows who’s boss: It’s whichever guy has his mouth open.
It’s possible to love a monarchy, but king worship is a fundamentally conservative arrangement. Tossed together by geography, talent, and ambition, the old Go-Betweens were a distinctly unconservative proposition. Their records, given to excess and subsequent correction, seemed motivated, as one song title has it, by “Hope Then Strife.”
Hope alone isn’t enough. And because only in uncertain situations is hope necessary to begin with, a completely assured band doesn’t have much room for it, either. The Friends of Rachel Worth is a winner, but there is such a thing as too safe a bet. CP