A Long Short Story

The Go-Betweens in Love

None of this is likely to attract ecstatics or malcontents, I know, but perhaps it clarifies what's at stake for the band's fans, whose devotion mystifies outsiders. With Capitol's career-defining 1978-1990 and its glorious non-LP add-ons now inadequately replaced by the Beggars Banquet comp Bellavista Terrace, let me point out that they've never made a bad album and recommend the consensus oeuvre-topper Tallulah, followed closely by the consensus runner-up It Depends. The Friends of Rachel Worth definitely crowds into this second echelon. But as is only to be expected after 11 years, it doesn't quite mesh the way the Go-Betweens' true band records did. Lacking that sense of fills and figures stumbled upon over long performance histories and instantly integrated into the act not because they were brilliant, which these nonvirtuosos rarely were, but because they felt right, it seems somewhat one-dimensional musically; especially on McLennan's songs, there's the same singer-with-backup expediency that straitened his solo CDs, two of which surpassed any of Forster's on sheer tune-power anyway. And near as one can tell, neither Pickvance nor—surprisingly, since she's such a powerhouse—Weiss provides the kind of subliminal cross-gender input with which steadfast drummer Lindy Morrison and, on the last two albums, mercurial cellist-and-such Amanda Brown always riled the band.

One can't be sure in part because, for some time span or other, Morrison and Brown's input was romantic as well as musical, which ultimately contributed as much to the group's breakup as did the marketplace's unfeeling demolition of their star fantasies. A decade on, apparently, neither couple is talking. So though what's happened in between is murky, one is tempted to wonder whether Pickvance (or the female drummer from across the sea who'll replace Weiss on tour) is Grant's girlfriend. Certainly the new lyrics suggest that the two old partners' life-paths have diverged. Robert is reliably reported to be happily married in Germany, a union presumably joined after the two years of seclusion sketched drolly in "German Farmhouse," one of four Forster songs here that aren't about love. These are the catchiest and most fetching tracks on the album, taking up surfing dreams, a fond and funny envoi to Patti Smith, and a life-swapping fable that when you think about it may be a love song after all. Comparatively, McLennan's five songs seem unevolved, conjuring the image of a single inamorata—willful, entrancing, a mystery lady brewing love and loss.

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

This femme fatale-cum-idée fixe may merely be an artistic creation, of course, or a conflation of my imagination; to some extent she no doubt is. But as an old fan, I catch myself thinking, He's 42 now—why doesn't he find himself a nice librarian? I remember too how surging McLennan melodies like "Right Here" and "Streets of Our Town" would launch whole Go-Betweens albums into a dimension The Friends of Rachel Worth never approaches. And then, to refresh my memory, I play McLennan's finest solo album, 1995's Horsebreaker Star. I note and very much enjoy how smartly the hooks circle by on their appointed rounds, far more accomplished in their pop professionalism than the songs on Rachel Worth. I wonder how many of these clear-cut little gems sprang from his own life, how many from friends or snatches of conversation or his by now considerable craft. And then my changer takes me to "Magic in Here," the McLennan title that leads the new album. The arrangement is a touch expedient, as I said. But that's relative to old Go-Betweens. Relative to Horsebreaker Star, it's quirky and homemade and riddled with pitfalls. "Lovers lie around on tangled knots," McLennan sings, describing a dock, and his life, and, of course, this music. It's a Go-Betweens album. It's like nothing else. Except, perhaps, love.

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