Music

A World of Limestone: Grant McLennan 1958-2006

Justin Cober-Lake

With the passing of Grant McLennan, the world loses one of the best songwriters it never knew it had.

PopMatters Music Interviews Editor

I didn't think I should be giving Grant McLennan his memorial. After all, I don't own every album in the Go-Betweens discography, I know only one of his solo albums, and I'm a relatively new fan. Upon reflection, though, maybe that's exactly the type of fan who should be writing this tribute. It's been inexplicable to me that the Go-Betweens never reached wider success. Every single person I've ever played them for has liked them. Yet somehow they never got the listening public to fall in love with them.

Well, I fell. The first time I heard Oceans Apart, the group's 2005 release, I immediately knew this was a band I wanted to know more about, to track down every album and maybe even know the words to some b-sides. The problem is that McLennan, and Go-Betweens partner Robert Forster, write songs that you get bogged down in. They move so easily, and yet they call you back again and again. I've been slow to pick up more albums because I can't seem to finish the ones I have.

McLennan's art, like most memorable art, looks like it's easy; he doesn't deliver grand poetic pronouncements, he simply tells you things. That conversational intimacy in the group's music helps the duo (truly a duo, despite whomever they surrounded themselves with in the band) do something better than anyone else in pop: create setting. McLennan doesn't need to describe the street you've been on, because you're invariably on the street he's describing. His success doesn't rely on precise descriptions, but on the inviting nature of the songs -- you very quickly arrive where the Go-Betweens take you. You don't need to have spent time on a horse to join McLennan "on the five mile fence" with the "bloodwood, bones, and steers" in "Boundary Rider"? You end up in places when you listen to the Go-Betweens whether you know it or not.

That arrival comes most powerfully on what's bound to be McLennan's most referenced song in the next few weeks: "Cattle and Cane", from the Go-Betweens 1983 album Before Hollywood. McLennan's song, built around one of those perfect and soft guitar hooks the group never ran out of, would be nostalgic if the narrator ever went there. McLennan builds his lyrics around recollections of growing through childhood and leaving, distancing the lyric by putting the memory in the third person. With loss beautifully wrapped in a train ride "Through fields of cattle / Through fields of cane," you can forget to cry, but the pinpoint moment of "His father's watch / He left it in the showers" reminds you that this is a person. The character at the center of the song might be filtered through several layers of narration, but he is nonetheless a person completely real.

This complete grounding never denied the directly harsh side of life. In my favorite McLennan song, "Black Mule," he tells the story of a man whom a nun rescues from a life-threatening beating. After cleaning him up, she tells him, "Go into the world and take a look." In the next verse a car bomb blows him up. McLennan is direct: "Life can be cruel. Nothing to interpret here; this is just the song that keeps coming back to me since I heard the news of McLennan's death.

If you're concerned about the McLennan's artistic output, it might mean something that McLennan and the Go-Betweens, on their third album after re-forming from a lengthy breakup, were as good as ever. In a recent interview with Stylus Magazine, Forster said, "Our relationship's changing all the time. We're still discovering its magnitude." That statement works in a songwriting context (if you're concerned about the art), but it also reminds us that McLennan was a real person, just one who was unusually gifted.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image