Robert Forster: The Candle and the Flame

A quick perusal of the history of rock & roll will tell you that most songs are concerned with three things: getting laid, getting dumped or getting cheated on. Rare is the songwriter that explores the challenges of commitment, fidelity and growing old with dignity – which is not surprising, since rock stars are not well known for any of those things.

But most rock stars are not like Robert Forster, the former Go-Between. Back in 1993, Forster made his second solo album, Calling From A Country Phone. It’s one of the happiest albums you could wish to hear: Forster was newly married and blissfully content. Thirty years later, pushing 65, Forster is still married, still happy, and still wants you to know all about it.

Take his new song Tender Years, from The Candle And The Flame, Forster’s eighth album outside the Go-Betweens. “I see her through the ages / She’s a book of a thousand pages,” goes the opening line, over a shuffling rhythm and a sly melody that Forster, as usual, barely tries to sing. Yet it fades out in a richly harmonised croon: “See how far we’ve come.”

But the shadow of mortality hangs over The Candle And The Flame. Made in the wake of his wife and musical partner Karin Bäumler’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer in mid-2021, and in between rounds of surgery and chemotherapy, it is startling in its intimacy and quiet power. But it is ultimately life-affirming.

Forster already had most of these nine songs written at the time of the diagnosis, as well as the bones of another, a two-minute Sturm-und-Drang lacking lyrics, bridge or chorus. It was completed by two lines: “She’s a fighter / fighting for good.” It finishes with a deep, symbolic exhalation of oxygen, the sound of someone who’ll fight until her last breath.

The song, titled She’s A Fighter, opens The Candle And The Flame, and although nothing else on this album sounds remotely like it, it effectively sets the tone. Bäumler and the couple’s two children Loretta and Louis (previously of the Goon Sax) accompany Forster on the track, which serves as an invitation: to gather around and cheer them on.

The last time Forster dealt this explicitly with mortality and grief was The Evangelist, recorded after the passing of his former songwriting partner, Grant McLennan. But where that record was a devastated wasteland, The Candle And The Flame is full of life, wonder and hope. The songs are uncluttered, yet musical details sprout from everywhere like green shoots.

Here, credit goes to Forster’s band, which includes long-serving bass player Adele Pickvance alongside the John Steel Singers’ Scott Bromiley and Luke McDonald, as well as Forster’s family. All step back and step up as required, never getting in the way, waiting to shine on the few ensemble performances (Tender Years; Always).

Two songs underline Forster’s endless debt to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. With Bäumler accompanying Forster in a duet, I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time is a testament to sobriety and memory. There’s A Reason firmly rejects rock & roll’s perennial death wish, and Forster’s voice is suddenly urgent, high in the mix:

It’s not profound, it’s what I’ve found:
A scrap of paper in the gutter.
But I scooped it out, I read it aloud
“What you do, it matters”

Forster has always been an incurable optimist. Even in the bleakest times, he will look to better ones ahead. Flamboyant on stage, behind the scenes he sought out, and achieved, a quiet, stable life. If that sounds boring, you should hear him sing about it. It’s not very rock & roll. It’s a lot more interesting and enduring than that.

First published in the Guardian, 3 February 2023

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