(A version of this review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 2.)
Robert Forster’s old mucker Grant McLenann once sang about being in the core of the flame, that place where the light may burn brightest but “I know what I mean but I just don’t say, cos all the old words get in the way”.
On his new album, his seventh solo (after nine with McLenann in The Go-Betweens), and his first in four years, Forster positions himself in the core of something more fierce, an inferno no less, and yet finds himself cooler, clearer, more able to find the right words, new and old.
Herein, Forster is, as ever, an observer not someone consumed by the heat, a storyteller once-removed – yes, his own story sometimes weaves in and out of the songs but you’d not want to claim certainty on where and when – yet he is also someone with the heart to see in, beyond the headline or the punchline.
He’s the kind of storyteller able tell the true yarn of a young northern NSW couple who looked to flee the town of their youth, with its weight of personal history and its blinkered hopes for the future, and show the pair in 1972, born to run, wind in the hair, getting away … to a town four miles away.
Not exactly the great escape then. But as the song chronicles the ill-timed first pregnancy, the job that would at least pay a wage and for the house “near the dunes”, and then, after the four children have made their own small escapes, a retreat from the waves now that the water “had too much rage”, Forster brings compassion and understanding.
“Life had turned a page,” he sings, over a lightly moving Pacific island rhythm and almost as light instrumentation.
And that sums up Inferno: a record of restraint to the point of understatement – and sometimes, to a song’s detriment, beyond that point – where the right feeling is as important as le mot juste. An album where failure, at least as measured by others, can be tempered by a seam of self-awareness+self-confidence, as captured in what some might read as a musical roman-a-clef, Remain.
Truthfully, in its gentlest, best, moments Inferno makes languid almost luscious, without excess.
I’ll Look After You, where the drums feel like they’re sloping in after everyone else and the guitar offers gentle chords reminiscent of an Orange Juice ballad more than a curlier Go-Betweens one, sees Forster make promises simultaneously prosaic and tender. Over a more familiar, stiff little inner city rhythm, The Morning mixes “twisted scenes” with the smell of ugliness lingering, and the sun knocking at the door when “the morning is a friend”, as the voice of Karin Bãumler (I presume) works as an echo of hope.
When it toughens slightly, say for example the Robyn Hitchcock-ish bent pop of No Fame (where the humdrum can’t kill a dream, no matter how unlikely), or the Lou Reed-ish vamp of the title track (where the weather may send you troppo) it still feels like home ground is being granted.
When Inferno is not as successful, oddly enough in both the opening track, Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement, and the closing One Bird In The Sky, it is because gentle-on-the-ear-and-nerves never steps up to compelling-you-to-stay.
The melodies take more of a meander than a purposeful walk, the characters don’t really grip, and the songs’ peaks are almost in the distance before you realise that’s what they were. They both cry out for a tightening of direction.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Inferno works best when Forster is right in the middle of the fire, sanguine, perceptive, looking in and looking out.