Despite Being Uneven, Robert Forster's 'Inferno' Burns Hot
At this stage of his career, the Go-Betweens' Robert Forster has the skill and experience to reveal wondrous depths within his pop sophistication.
1 March 2019
After 40 years, songwriter Robert Forster has his art pretty well pinned down. From the rough indie pop and post-punk of the early Go-Betweens years through his multi-part solo career, Forster has never wavered from his sharp and precise songwriting. On Inferno – his seventh solo album and third in this latter stage of his career – Forster sounds like Forster, with memorable melodies and turns of phrase. At its best, the album provides yet more entries into a strong catalog. At the same time, it plays it a little too safe. As good as Forster's thing is, it can be comfortable, and the tracks on Inferno stay so clean and refined that they can feel too much like a template.
The dinner-party version of Forster's style works; high-class pop doesn't fail simply because it knows which wine to select. And as polished as his recordings are, Forster doesn't write on auto-pilot. "No Fame" utilizes his skill at recalling a past (real or imagined), in this case, one set when "My mother hangs the washing / And my dad has jobs to ignore", a perfect moment of setting for a teen about to take off on a fruitless adventure. Coming from a veteran singer, though, Forster's chorus "I don't need not fame" carries a split meaning, between the youth declaring independence and an older artist commenting on his cult hero status.
Following track "Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)" gives the album some needed bounce. Forster creates a version of "paradise" amid an encroaching jungle and a drought and a bit of heatwave panic. Between his lyrics and the song's rock 'n' roll, it generates real-world heat. The rest of the album, all much more relaxed, rarely matches the effectiveness of this track. Tropical "Life Has Turned a Page" drifts on the waves as a casual reflection. "I'll Look After You" drags under its sentiment and odd vocal phrasing, even though Forster's message becomes more complex as the song progresses.
"Remain" looks back from somewhere near the end of things, considering what remains even after defeat and missed opportunity. Forster successfully mixes constrained emotion with genuine contentedness, making a rare mature statement that keeps its vitality. Forster still has plenty to say and both the craft and experience to get it across. "I'm Gonna Tell It" makes an explicit reminder of that point, but his telling of his telling doesn't drive it home.
The album closes with some majestic, as "One Bird in the Sky" builds steadily for five minutes as Forster makes a challenging and personal statement. The violin has just as much to stay, and the roomy production allows the piece to develop its expansiveness fully. The song uses its innate sophistication to create a particular sense of reflection and endurance, with both the artists and the song's character strong within earned patience. As the album finishes, Forster's current studio sensibilities reveal a wonderful potency. Inferno passes quickly and a little unevenly, but the core of the album burns hot.