The Go-Betweens seem to be cursed. They are a classic example of the Big Star music law. The law that states that no matter how much critical acclaim you receive, regardless of the majesty of your records you only ever attain cult status. A name to be dropped by the musically obsessed. Adored and worshipped by a small but fervent fan base but your sales eclipsed by novelty records and reality TV runners up enjoying their brief fling with fame.
The Go-Betweens where formed in Brisbane by friends Robert Forster and Grant McLennan in 1978. This is the band’s ninth LP and their third since reforming in 2000. These Aussie songsmiths are still mining a seam that is pure musical gold.
The songs on Oceans Apart are split 50:50, five songs written and sung by Forster and five by McLennan. The songs complement each other beautifully. The LP is stamped with the band’s trademark gift for plush intricate melodies and sophisticated wordplay. The sound is mainly autumnal and burnished, hushed and fragile, but infused with dark hues and subtle black humour.
The opening Here Comes A City, penned by Forster, is propelled along on a set of sparkling frenetic guitar chords. It’s the tale of a journey by rail across Germany. Images of other lives glimpsed briefly through the carriage windows, flicking past like frames in Wim Wenders’ films.
It’s followed by the warm and arresting, Finding You. The song begins with a crystalline melody, shimmering off the strings of McLennan’s acoustic guitar. His voice rich and tender, an aching cello adds a bittersweet undertow and a biting distorted guitar swoops in. It builds, gently unwinds, builds again and then evaporates into a blissful double tracked vocal. When McLennan sings “and then the lighting finds us” the hairs on the back of my neck prickle and my heart swoons.
Forster and McLennan manage to tackle the subject of aging with dignity and grace. Forster’s Darlinghurst Nights is a wistful and witty rumination on a misspent youth. A funky brass section buoys the song, the lyrics painting a picture of the hubris of the young. Too many nights spent drinking “gut rot cappuccino” and dreaming of writing film scripts and jetting off around the globe.
McLennan’s Boundary Rider is a subtle update of their classic Cattle and Cain. An organ drone gives way to another wonderful sparkling melody. The lyrics tell of a ranch hand that age has suddenly caught up with and who can only survive by surrendering himself to the prosaic nature of his work.
This Night’s For You sounds like Teenage Fan Club rewriting The Cure circa Head On The Door. Cooed backing vocals, strings and crunching smoldering guitars. The closing Mountains Near Delray is REM relocated to the chilled out streets of Brisbane. There are haunting country style guitars and a gentle lingering organ part that unfurls like a spring morning. The lyrics are cryptic, full of clipped images, a search for a rural hideaway maybe, a reflection on an idyllic childhood possibly. It’s a beguiling and striking way to end a wonderful record.