A new album by Robert Forster is almost always a challenge before it becomes a pleasure. For a start, there’s that voice, which hits fewer notes than Lou Reed on a less than perfect day. So there isn’t a great deal of melody, unlike the songs of Forster’s former songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, who wrote the majority of that band’s better-known, poppier material.
But, as Forster admonishes on Songs To Play’s brisk opener, Learn To Burn, “You can miss details when you’re in a hurry.” Forster rarely writes obvious songs; the type that get your foot tapping and rattle around your head for days. Instead he writes songs, and records, that creep up and throttle you from behind. And he almost never writes duds.
My first feeling upon listening to Songs To Play was of disappointment, especially coming after The Evangelist, the masterpiece Forster had to make following McLennan’s premature death in 2006. This is his first album in seven years, and though far more upbeat, I found myself waiting for it to finish, which didn’t take long. Then, as soon as it did, I played it again.
Forster’s albums are like that. You think there’s not much going on, only to find the songs growing upon you as inexorably as vines around an abandoned building. The music is lean and understated; the lyrics, as ever, are penetrating and compelling. Imagine Reed narrating a Talking Heads album (it could be ’77 or True Stories) and you’re getting close to the feeling of Songs To Play.
For this album, Forster has moved on from long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson and instead used members of Brisbane’s John Steel Singers, as well as his wife Karin Bäumler (who plays some sumptuous violin) and his 17-year-old son Louis. There are bits of glockenspiel, Mariachi horns on A Poet Walks, and lots of backing vocals throughout. Songs turn on the lightest of touches.
The band is tight and it’s versatile, whether it’s playing the sly bossa nova of Love Is Where It Is, or the final track Disaster In Motion, which recalls the Velvet Underground’s The Murder Mystery with its churning organ and insistent percussion. A final shriek of unexpected feedback reveals the hidden menace beneath the song’s surface.
Let Me Imagine You is a plea for the preservation of mystique in an exhibitionist age: “Please don’t twitter / I find it sweeter.” As always, what Forster lacks in melodic variation he makes up for with deft phrasing and droll humour: “Wild mountain sound!” he remarks over the fast country picking at the end of I Love Myself And I Always Have (the album was recorded at Mt Nebo, outside Brisbane).
Lyrically, that song is a kind of postmodern update of Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, but it’s also a return to the earliest years of the Go-Betweens, when the influence of Jonathan Richman loomed large. “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard,” Forster says, completely matter-of-fact. The humour in this song shouldn’t mask its deadly serious intent.
For all its antecedents, though, Songs To Play (the allusion to Leonard Cohen in the title, surely, is deliberate) is Robert Forster at his most singular. Perhaps most of all, one feels the absence of McLennan here, but not in the painful way he overshadowed The Evangelist, which featured three of his unfinished songs. It’s the sound of Forster starting anew, and the spring in his step is welcome.
The biggest problem one faces when writing a profile about Robert Forster is the knowledge that he could quite easily write it himself, and would probably prefer to. The lauded singer-songwriter – co-founder of Brisbane’s revered Go-Betweens; creator of six solo albums; former Pascall prize-winning music writer for The Monthly – likes telling stories. Sometimes he likes to make them up.
This does not mean the stories are not truthful; just that Forster likes to tell them in a particular way. Stories serve a purpose. They make the man, but also enlarge the myth. For a book accompanying the release of a lavish Go-Betweens box set earlier this year, Forster wrote a lengthy potted history of the group – all of it, disarmingly, in the second person. He became his own, not particularly harsh critic.
For his new album Songs To Play, he wrote and directed an eight-minute trailer for which he scripted not only the narrative, but the quotes of those appearing: friends, band members, even family. Yet he rejects the idea that he is some kind of control freak. He says it was about skewing expectations, and playing with the form: “That’s what Billy Wilder did, that’s what Orson Welles did.”
This sort of trick – he denies it’s a schtick – is Forster all over. “I’m not much up on social media and how you promote an album [but] that seemed the most interesting way of doing it to me,” he says, in a café near his home in Brisbane’s western suburbs. “It went back to [D.A. Pennebaker’s] Don’t Look Back … I enjoyed putting words into people’s mouths, that they’ve got to say straight-faced to a camera.”
Not everyone enjoyed reciting them. “I cringed,” admits sound engineer Jamie Trevaskis. “I want to hide under the table, because they’re not my words, and I feel awkward saying that stuff. He never said, ‘Jamie, I want to make an analogue album,’ and I never replied, ‘That’s what I do.’ That’s when I realised, the story is the most important thing for Robert. He was making a story for the album to sit on top of.”
Forster is an enigma. A student of Bob Dylan, he assiduously cultivates his image. Asked to describe himself, though, he does so “In very straight terms. Fifty-eight. Australian – which is important. A family man [he and German wife Karin Bäumler have two children; Louis, 17, and Loretta, 14], which is also very important. I cook things up at home – I’m talking about art – and take that out to the world. That’s it.”
Except it’s not. Like his plain-spoken, barely sung songs, there is always more going on than first appears.
Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Dave Graney wrote a tune that may or may not be about Forster, which he drily called Everything Was Legendary With Robert. “His riveting self-consciousness drew you in / The crowd gathered to see what he was looking at, talking about … It wasn’t him, or the times, it was just the angle he locked into / The attitude, the window that came between him and the world.”
Long-time friend Peter Fischmann, who actually does get to speak for himself in the trailer, says Forster “has a great understanding of the ridiculousness of life that goes over the head of some people. His irony confounds.” Forster, for his part, says it’s an extension of his earlier band. “There’s a playfulness there, which I like. The Go-Betweens, right from the start, were always based on a certain amount of theorising.”
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter behind the Apartments and very briefly an early member of the Go-Betweens, invokes the Monkees, a crucial early influence on the group. “He’s a daydream believer, a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation.” He describes an optimist: “Robert’s world is one where it is forever spring – it’s his principal season. The promise of it all; everything that’s on the way.”
“There’s a sense in his songs of big stuff going on between the lines,” says writer and editor Christian Ryan, who first tapped the previously untried Forster to write about music for The Monthly for its first issue in 2005. “His words are very spare – it’s almost in shorthand, so you’re listening [and] your mind is simultaneously operating on a separate high-wire level, thinking, what the hell is going on here.”
Forster resigned his commission at The Monthly in 2013. It was a brave call. “The one source of constant income I had, I threw away. I’d been there eight years. I’d written myself out, I thought, and I wasn’t getting around to the other things I was doing.” Apart from assembling the box set, he’s been working on a memoir. (“If you say rock musician and memoir, you know, eyes will roll,” he grimaces.)
Ryan had a hunch that the songwriter could transfer his poetry into prose, a rare skill. “Taut, exotic, precise, vivid yet never straining, in terms of the imagery. And no banality, ever,” he says – and that’s about the songs. He describes the thrill of receiving Forster’s first piece, on Antony and the Johnsons’ album I Am A Bird Now, as “like receiving a postcard from the moon”.
Fischmann alludes to another early influence, David Bowie – but not in the way you might expect. “Robert is like the man who fell to earth. The machinations of modern life confound him, but when it comes to matters of the human heart, he is a Zen master.” He cites the time when, after the Go-Betweens first broke up in 1990, he returned from Germany with Karin, and earnestly asked a friend how to buy a fridge.
Forster’s songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, shared Forster’s disdain for the mundane. After his friend’s premature death in 2006, Forster wrote a eulogy in The Monthly noting that McLennan didn’t drive and owned no wallet, watch, credit card or computer. He did, however, maintain a subscription to the New York Review Of Books.
To call the Go-Betweens bookish would be an understatement: select items from McLennan’s library came as bonuses with early copies of the box set. On the inner sleeve of the band’s final album, Oceans Apart, McLennan is dressed in jeans, a fleece jacket and ski cap. Forster is immaculate in suit and spectacles, leaning against a tree trunk with a hefty hardback tucked under his arm for effect.
The pair were a contrast, but again, all was not as it seemed. Forster was flamboyant; a bevy of tics and mannerisms, and a wardrobe ranging from canary-yellow suits to dresses as the occasion demanded. McLennan was the quiet one, with the most sincere eyebrows in rock & roll. Off stage, though, McLennan was the hell-raiser with a turbulent personal life; Forster was settled; the “sensible rock”, as he called himself.
McLennan’s death finished the band for good, after a second coming that spanned three albums with a new line-up from the year 2000. In 2008, Forster released his fifth solo album, The Evangelist, which included unfinished songs by McLennan. The record hung heavy with grief. “A river ran and a train ran and a dream ran through everything that he did,” Forster sang on It Ain’t Easy, one of the jauntier tunes.
After The Evangelist’s release, Forster beat a deliberate retreat. The original aim was to not release another album for five years; it stretched to seven. “It was like Act Four,” he says. “If you take The Go-Betweens as Act One, the solo years as two and the band getting back together as three … I wanted Act Four to come with a certain amount of gravitas.”
The first step was to assemble a new band. Long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson had moved to Sydney, and Forster couldn’t afford to fly them north for rehearsals. He also wanted to open a new chapter. Along with Karin, who plays violin (son Louis also plays some guitar), he decided to work with Luke McDonald and Scott Bromiley, from Brisbane’s John Steel Singers.
Songs To Play is a very different album, the sound of a dedicated craftsman starting over, with tunes reminiscent of the Go-Betweens’ early years: small, suburban songs indebted to Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. “I wanted to write something more upbeat. The feelings that I had were more life-affirming. There was just a looseness in the way that I felt that I can only describe as a bounce out of my last album.”
Perhaps the most telling track is called I Love Myself And I Always Have. “It’s one of the most serious songs on the album,” he says, straight-faced, knowing full well that audiences – particularly in Australia – could take lines like “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard” as a joke. It’s not. “I like throwing an idea out and then twisting it right in front of their faces.”
In a recent essay, “What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?”, Forster expands on one of his 10 rules of rock & roll: being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job. He recalls a chance encounter with the late Dragon singer, Marc Hunter, one morning in Kings Cross in the early 1980s: Forster was out for a walk; Hunter, clearly at the end of a long night on the tiles, still looked, in Forster’s words, “fucking incredible”.
Forster, by his own admission, isn’t a rock star anymore, even though – like Dave Graney – the dividing line between the private and public persona can be paper-thin. “You’ve got to be careful because, you know, Hunter died from it. [Michael] Hutchence died from it. Bon Scott. Chrissy Amphlett died, but under other circumstances. So it’s dangerous. People die young.” He doesn’t mention McLennan.
“One of the things I like best about Robert, actually, is that I don’t think he really wants you to know the artist,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of an old-school thing which has gone out of rock music, in the age where everybody’s tweeting and making their personal lives very transparent. Robert still sees value in mystery. He doesn’t go out of his way to tell you about his love life.”
In the trailer, another of Forster’s friends is asked to describe him. “He’s difficult,” she replies, after a studied pause. In person, though, Forster is unfailingly courteous; even affable. But, he says, “somehow I enjoyed being on the other side of the camera, having written the lines for someone to say that I’m difficult, while I watch it. I don’t know what that makes me.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015