Here in Brisbane, the heat has finally broken. For 46 days in a row, the mercury exceeded 30C. The previous record was 27 days, in 2017. While the north has been awash, the wet season here has failed. I’m listening to the title track of the new Robert Forster album. It’s called Inferno (Brisbane In Summer). You might think it looks like paradise, he sings, but everyone here is screaming: “Let me, let me, let me, let me, let me out!”
Forster has written about the weather in Brisbane before. On his 2008 album The Evangelist, recorded during a similarly excruciating period of mind-melting heat, the first song was called If It Rains. At the time, we thought it might never rain here again. Not that Inferno is any kind of manifesto. This is not a climate change concept album. It’s a Robert Forster record, which means buckets of atmosphere, dry wit, subtle pleasures and unerring quality.
While Forster’s last album, Songs To Play, was recorded close to his home patch in the hills west of Brisbane, for Inferno he escaped to Berlin, where he recorded his first solo album, Danger In The Past, in 1990. And where Songs To Play featured a drier sound and coiled, latent energy, Inferno, produced by Victor Van Vugt, is lush and tropical, and it moves at a slightly more languid pace.
The first song on this record is called Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement. I have no idea what that refers to, and frankly couldn’t care less; it might be the best title since the Go-Betweens cut Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express in 1986. There’s a simple four-note progression, a ride cymbal, Forster’s wife Karin Baumler pulling insistently at the song’s edges on violin. Forster doesn’t sing much, but the melody is inferred and fleshed out by his players.
That’s how Forster’s albums get under your skin. He’s very much an acquired taste, but lyric-driven songs that seem tuneless on the surface are the ones you find yourself humming later. And the ones that seem most banal, like The Morning, have a wisdom that hits you later. “The morning is a friend,” he says. After all, you never know when you might not wake up. The world might be cooking, but Forster remains an eternal optimist.
He’s also a marathoner, not a sprinter. He’s 61 now, with seven solo albums under his belt around the nine he made with the Go-Betweens, and he is one of Australian music’s elders. He doesn’t sell remotely as many records as Nick Cave, a close peer and friend, or Paul Kelly. On the song Remain, he says, “I did my good work, knowing it wasn’t my time.” The groove of this song is totally relaxed as he speaks of being overlooked and forgotten.
Forster doesn’t care. Not only is he an optimist, he’s supremely self-assured. He knows what he does is good without needing the validation of others. No Fame contains the lines “I’m gonna write a novel that is set a hundred years ago / The custom and the carriage of the people, well, I don’t know.” While others overtake him, Forster is content to cruise and to observe, knowing that one day they’ll catch up with him – not the other way around.
After the big heat, listening to this album is like Spring Rain.
First published in The Guardian, 1 March 2019
Mea culpa: This review was spoiled by an embarrassingly careless error on my part; Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement is a WB Yeats poem, which I was ignorant of and had simply failed to look up.