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Great albums, like great books and great films, can be problematic: prickly, demanding, more rewarding in retrospect. Perhaps that, it could be indulgently offered, is why Grant McLennan stopped making them.
Were that argument offered in defense of the Australian singer/songwriter’s three solo albums, however, a few songs he wrote and recorded with the Go-Betweens, his previous band, would effectively counter it. “Cattle and Cane,” “Bachelor Kisses,” and “Streets of Your Town”—certainly not the only three that would serve—are blithe yet serious, catchy yet incisive, ideal marriages of pop form and function. The latter, for example, is gloriously tuneful, but capable of turning poignant as quickly as a cloud can pass before the sun: “And this town is full of battered wives,” McLennan sings, and the world goes black for a second.
Such moments are rare on the albums McLennan has recorded since going solo, which too often transmute his musical facility into glibness. Though the Go-Betweens remain only objects of cult adoration in the U.S., their final album, 16 Lovers Lane, produced radio hits in Oz, where the band returned in 1987 after a long sojourn in London. McLennan seems to have liked the feeling, and as a solo performer has shown no fear of slick production values and slicker rhymes. The result has been heard on discs like 1993’s Fireboy, an awkwardly overproduced, frustratingly facile set whose first five songs I probably played more than any others released that year.
McLennan’s latest, Horsebreaker Star, was recorded in Athens, Ga., with producer John Keane, an R.E.M. pal, and such guests as backing vocalist Syd Straw. Moderately folksy though far from spare, the mostly acoustic album avoids the glaring stylistic overreaching that marred its predecessors. It’s inconsistent, but its best, say, 12 songs would surely make it the most melodically enchanting album of the year.
Editing Star is not an abstract notion. That’s just what Atlantic has done for the disc’s U.S. release—twice. Issued late last year in Britain and Australia as a 24-song double album, Star was initially pared for the U.S. to 18 songs, a version made available to critics on advance tapes. The final cut, though, got to 19 with the addition of “Lighting Fires,” the soaringly tuneful lead track from Fireboy (which was released in this country, but just barely).
Some of Atlantic’s omissions make sense: All but collectors can live without McLennan’s pleasant version of “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” not exactly a Byrds classic, and removing the honky-tonkin’ “Late Afternoon in Early August,” “Do Your Own Thing,” and “That’s That,” and the mildly funky “If I Was a Girl” may prevent some confusion among genre-shy American listeners. It’s harder to justify banishing the rollicking “Head Over Heels,” however, especially while retaining “Race Day Rag,” an uneventful instrumental.
Still, what McLennan’s American editors have put together holds together; even “Lighting Fires,” a jarring addition for those used to its place on Fireboy, fits reasonably well into this suite of somewhat literary love songs. The Go-Betweens forged their own brand of folk-rock classicism as soon as they lost the new-wave jumpiness of their earliest work, and Star‘s Americanization (mostly via the twang of such instruments as slide guitar and banjo) trifles less with McLennan’s elegant songcraft than did the studio gloss of his two Australian-made albums.
The lyrics don’t seem as forced here as they did on Fireboy and Watershed, McLennan’s solo debut, but the songwriter has not recaptured the exemplary balance between sense and sound he once had. Star is a melodist’s album, its highlights the celestial refrains of songs like “Simone and Perry,” “Open My Eyes,” “Dropping You,” and “All Her Songs.” Tracks like the eight-minute “What Went Wrong” ably sustain a bittersweet mood, but the album’s essence is revealed in moments of rhapsodic release.
McLennan still has a way with a phrase, but not always with meaning. “This is the time, yeah/When the bees don’t sting/The hay is cut/Rain falls down like string/A call from London/To the Amazon/It’s all a wonder/You hung on so long,” is one tolerably opaque verse from “All Her Songs.” That song exists, however, not for mock-bucolic chatter about bees and rain but for McLennan’s lovely duet with Straw. “How’s a girl gonna sing/All her songs when the world’s gone wild?” he asks to Straw’s dulcet echo, and their harmonies provide the only answer that’s required. Bookish and mild-mannered as ever, McLennan hardly seems the kind of guy who’d go so wild as to lose his reason, but the pleasures of choruses that ecstatic are beyond words. If only they weren’t, Star might be a great album and not just a musically irresistible one.
When the Go-Betweens first began recording, Robert Forster was their only songwriter. Later, his stark songs were upstaged by McLennan’s lush melodies, so for Forster the band’s breakup was a restoration of sorts. Solo, he proved entirely capable of sustaining an album with his own songs; his first two CDs are, in their reticent way, more cohesive and compelling than his ex-partner’s. So it’s hard to fathom just what he had in mind when he made I Had a New York Girlfriend, an album of covers both hip and studiously unhip.
Girlfriend, which takes its title from a line from a Modern Lovers song not included on the album, starts with “Nature’s Way,” the Spirit chestnut also recorded (also inexplicably) on Victoria Williams’ recent Loose. It’s one of several songs on the album that’s more notable for its tune than its lyric, and so gains nothing from the existential country-singer mode of Forster’s post-‘tweens work. More entertaining, at least in theory, are his attempts to rescue the sentiments of recent schlock like Heart’s “Alone” or Keith Richards’ “Locked Away” or less-recent schlock like Neil Diamond’s (via the Monkees) “Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow.”
Forster invoked the name of Guy Clark on Danger in the Past, his first solo outing, and it’s such dark, solitary songs as Clark’s “Broken Hearted People” that serve him best here. He gets more than you might expect out of Grant Hart’s “2541,” but it’s the material borrowed from Bob Dylan, Rick Nelson, Mickey Newbery, and Bill Anderson that almost makes sense of Girlfriend. Nicely produced (by Forster) and played (by Mick Harvey, Clare Moore, Conway Savage, and others) the album nonetheless seems either a stalling action or a B-sides session that somehow spiraled out of control.