My memories of Australia in the 1990s are all innocence and sun: summers at the beach vaulting small waves; sailing Northbridge Juniors on Sydney’s Middle Harbour; following the exploits of David Boone and the handlebar moustachioed heroes of the Aussie cricket team as they took on the West Indies’ lethal pace. My grandparents lived in Queensland not too far from where Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the singer-songwriting team behind the Go-Betweens, met at university. In the scorching summers, a hideous cane toad took up residence in the relative cool of their letter box and he became almost a part of the family. Was it all magical innocence? Even looking back now, the empty suburban misogyny of Don’s Party, written some two decades earlier, seems the worst that could be twisted out of that nonchalant habitation – and those characters have their pleasures. While the schoolkids were busy understanding This Fortunate Life, the bush thundering of Peter Sculthorpe’s programmatic compositions, or Peter Carey’s inimitable Lucinda Leplastrier, everyone missed the real Australian artistic statement being made by two unassuming musicians in a voice everyone in the country could have understood, if they’d have listened.
Oh well: The regret-tinged critical appraisal of the Go-Betweens is old at this point. But that doesn’t mean the (now presumably fewer) chances to celebrate the band’s output should be passed up. From the still stinging loss of Grant McLennan to a heart attack last year, we have both a tribute album (a musical love-in of current Australian musicians of note) and now this collection of the best of both Forster and McLennan’s solo work. Calling this an “intermission” is characteristic of the band’s modesty, but it does correctly place both songwriters’ output directly in the context of their main band. I was too young to really know anything about the Go-Betweens prior to their 2000 comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth. But for anyone curious about the band and in a similar position, there’s no problem in that: The music of both artists is timeless, the poetry and emotion of the songs encased in modest, pleasant pop forms.
We may be paying more attention to Grant McLennan’s music now we know there will be no more of it, but there’s something in his easy insight that is both vital and identifiably Australian. His speak-sing delivery on songs like “Black Mule” will bring Paul Kelly to mind, but (as with most of the Go-Betweens songs) the difference is that the morals and images aren’t as obvious, the Australiana not quite as blatant. McLennan knew that self-doubt’s as much a part of being Australian as mateship and the bush – it echoes so strongly through his music. “The Dark Side of Town”, an exquisite slow-jangle pop song, tackles the loneliness in the wreckage of a broken relationship. “Hot Water” turns the realization that every life ends into a swaying folk ballad under a sweeping violin line.
Like McLennan, Forster favours simple language and short melodic lines that somehow hold the power of aphorism. More musically adventurous, his songs can have more of a brooding presence or menace than his partner’s generally cheerful, major melodies. In addition, Forster’s persona comes across as a fascinating marriage of bravado and insecurity. Both “Baby Stones” and “Cryin’ Love” address a lover who has moved on with similar outrage: In the former, Forster says, “Every man for the rest of your life will be less than me”; then later, “He cannot be as good looking as me”. There’s more than a hint of self-deprecation here; that’s new, and refreshing, in a singer-songwriter – not just self-pity, but the realization that it can be ridiculous. But Forster can be descriptive with the best of them. “I’ve Been Looking for Somebody” gives the image of walking alone through Sydney streets on a Sunday morning, the loneliness and desperation that accompanies his realization: “I used to think there was no woman in the world for me … but now I’ve changed my mind”.
It’s impossible to think of modern Australian folk-pop – the Josh Pykes and Darren Hanlons that are so popular in the country today – without Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. That they’ll never again come together to share their modest but powerful voices is a great (though inevitable) tragedy; but what we can do is continue to look back into their solo and combined work. Intermission shows us that we’re likely to keep finding new songs to love – examples of the power of casual poetry and an acoustic guitar. “In the house, the smell of tulips and peppermint”, McLennan sings on the opening of “One Plus One”. The simple image lingers with a strange persistence. Let’s hope our memory of these songwriters does too.