One Go-Betweens myth I’ve never bought is that it’s a grave global injustice they never had their chart moment (and at this stage never will). Andrew Mueller’s liner notes to the reissued Spring Hill Fair call them “bizarrely and scandalously underrated,” and most writing on the band concurs. This is partly frustrated journo foot-stamping, and partly lover’s blindness. Once the string of albums from Before Hollywood through Tallulah colonizes your heart, it’s hard to accept that the itch they scratch isn’t felt by anyone with skin. But face it: Even at their catchiest (“Right Here”) or most abandoned (“Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea”), their dignity could read as stiffness, their low-wattage glamour as drabness. There’s something in their music not to be found elsewhere in pop—it just isn’t what most people need or want, and insisting that this is “their loss” is simply snotty.
Oceans Apart delivers that something more reliably than any release since Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reactivated the group name in 2000, after a decade in the solo wilderness. The Friends of Rachel Worth got over on goodwill and a Sleater-Kinney assist; 2003’s Bright Yellow, Bright Orange was too casual. New-era album three (number nine, all told) requires less special pleading, if any. Mark Wallis’s digitally savvy production bespeaks renewed ambition, while the integration of drummer Glenn Thompson and bassist Adele Pickvance—check their hard, tumbling shuffle on “Born to a Family”—is consolation for the fact that Lindy Morrison’s singular beat divisions and Amanda Brown’s violin are gone for good. Yeah, the Go-Betweens are at bottom two Brisbane school chums making up parts for one another’s folk-rock études, but this time, they’ve remembered to be a band as well.
The linchpins are two Forster songs. “Here Comes a City” has their best singles’ galloping immediacy, fixing the excitement and melancholy of a European train trip via present-tense observations of life within the carriage (“Why do people who read Dostoyevsky look like Dostoyevsky?”) and without: “A bus-link complex . . . 22 rivers . . . Frankfurt Central.” (On fan forums, debate rages over whether the track resembles “Life During Wartime.” It does.) In “Darlinghurst Nights,” an old notebook unleashes memories of boho Sydney. Forster’s led us through houses Jack Kerouac built before, but never with this balance of Time Regained self-regard and Love and Theft metrics: “I’m gonna write a movie, and then I’m gonna star in a play/Then I’m gonna go to Caracas, ‘cos you know I’m—I’m just gonna have to—get away.”
McLennan’s guitar enlivens even Forster’s sketchier contributions (“Mountains Near Dellray” is a complete enigma); his own writing is harder to get behind. His formal facility and capo’d mid-tempo strumming can be a recipe for blandness: The tantalizing details of “No Reason to Cry” (“You bit my tongue on the Lisbon road”) flatline into a Travis-dull title-as-chorus hook. (But they have hits, so why can’t . . . Please get over it.) “Boundary Rider” revisits the Queensland of “Cattle and Cane” (“blood, wood, bones, and steers”), but the one that sticks is “Statue,” with the singer struggling, as ever, to bust through some ice maiden’s reserve—”I blow the dust from your lips, and beg forgiveness”—to say nothing of his own. Oscillator swells out of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” don’t hurt either.
Longtime fans, and even novices, ought to spring for the edition of Oceans Apart packaged with six live tracks from a 2004 show at London’s Barbican, only one (“He Lives My Life”) penned post-reunion. Forster acknowledges the hall’s place in Dylan lore with 1978’s “People Say” (“so that’s how it feels”), and exhumes the superior B-side “When People Are Dead.” But the peaks are McLennan’s towering, string-and-reed-enhanced readings of “The Wrong Road” and “Bye Bye Pride,” which stand up to the memory of the studio versions. These songs are the rock upon which the faith is founded, and they still endure. Repeat the past? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.
The Go-Betweens play Mercury Lounge June 10 and Southpaw June 11.