A Long Short Story

The Go-Betweens in Love

Eleven years after they finally attained major-label status with their sixth and formerly final album, 16 Lovers Lane, the Go-Betweens' The Friends of Rachel Worth arrives bearing Robert Vickers's arty, economically self-sufficient Jetset brand. Yet in America, where their cult was always less substantial than in Europe or their home continent, Australia, chances are excellent the new Jetset release will outsell the old Capitol one, because by all appearances the Go-Betweens' U.S. base has grown steadily since the band ceased to exist. Since 1996, all of their '80s albums have been in print on Beggars Banquet, three for the first time domestically. And every year, with the songs and sounds out there—stirred by word of mouth, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan's many solo and occasional collaborative efforts, and the indelibility of the work itself—more new fans sign on than old ones check out.

Juicing the story of this great postpunk reunion are the even greater postgrunge DIY-ers Sleater-Kinney, whose encouragement after a San Francisco gig was what set Grant and Robert to recording together again. Although in their subtle way the Go-Betweens were and remain as crucially male-female as X or Sonic Youth, the two bands weren't an obvious match, not just because Sleater-Kinney are natural militants while the Go-Betweens are cultivated noncombatants, but because their respective musics sound it. So although the album was recorded in Portland with all three S-K members aboard, it makes sense that frontwomen Corin Tucker and/or Carrie Brownstein cameo on only two of the 10 tracks. The regular is drum dynamo Janet Weiss, who replaces the legendary Lindy Morrison. Adele Pickvance fills the bass slot long occupied by label head Vickers. And Weiss's ex-lifemate Sam Coomes plays keyboards—just as he does as Weiss's singer-songwriting bandmate in yet another of her projects, the postdomestic Quasi.

Sonically, the Go-Betweens don't resemble Quasi—the Coomes-Weiss duo is much wilder, and much whinier. But the two bands share a modest sense of scale. Like it or not (in the '80s, the Go-Betweens still aimed to be stars), they're cult bands focused on small songs about manageable subjects. Sleater-Kinney sound as if they want the world and they want it now; the Go-Betweens sound as if they want breakfast but could probably hold out till lunch. Even with the serious pop fans who haunt alt shops and specialized Internet sites, they're not an automatic sell. I've played them for people who've loved them right off—musically, before registering more than a few words. But they can be damnably hard to explain to the convinced ecstatics and habitual malcontents who constitute so much of their theoretical audience.

Their feeling sounds like a fact.
photo: Martin Schori/Jetset Records
Their feeling sounds like a fact.

There's no denying that the Go-Betweens are a bookish taste—if you're bored by the literary, you won't get 'em. But rather than lyric poets, as I once thought, Forster and McLennan are better conceived as short-story writers, with the concreteness and forward motion of voices and music compensating for imagistic technique and low word-count. To quote their signature line—from "As Long as That," way back on 1984's Before Hollywood—they've "got a feeling, sounds like a fact," and that's how their songs work. They don't go in for the kind of old-fashioned tales that folk-identified bards like John Prine spin so well. But at their most fragmentary, the Go-Betweens are far more representational than Sonic Youth or even X, not to mention Sleater-Kinney (or Pavement). So to me they seem pretty firmly in the modern short-story tradition, the one invented by their fellow interloper from down under Katherine Mansfield as much as anyone—and attenuated to near intangibility in The New Yorker and elsewhere by writers convinced, unlike Mansfield then or the Go-Betweens now, that the quality of one's narrative art is in no way diminished by the narrowness of the milieu where it is situated.

Here it might be objected that the Go-Betweens can't be said to spread their net wide—they're very subcultural. But at least their characters don't know the Metro-North schedule by heart. Coming from Brisbane has been terrific for their frame of reference, as has touring on the cheap and living all over the world among artistic types touched just often enough to keep their heads up by major reward or renown. And a decisive plus has been their self-image as pop professionals, required by definition to deal in love songs. Not even McLennan, much the more relationship-centered of the two, has ever shied away from other subjects—the band's first stone classic, his "Cattle and Cane," nails with typically tender perspective another pop staple, a young man's nostalgia for his lost youth. But romance has been good to both of them in any case, and vice versa. Litterateurs rarely do love as much, and popsters rarely do it as well.

The Go-Betweens' romantic complaints refuse bile, raw self-pity, and the kind of wimp vulnerability gumsuckers with guitars have manipulated to their own ends since Cat Stevens was an infidel. They're analytic, they're bemused, they're amusing, they're emotional within bounds, they're as kind as they should be or a little kinder, they're sharp-tongued when it's called for, and often enough they're, well, loving—all of which is rendered more approachable by the flat thoughtfulness of their voices and tunes and more complex by the well-worked intricacy of their arrangements and structures. A little beneath the surface, at a level far from unreadable but appropriately personal, this music isn't so much about love as it is a model of love's preconditions. It has no equal in pop, and also no equal of any note in the contemporary short story, where convention commonly confuses darkness of worldview with depth of purpose.

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