Robert Forster: Inferno review – Best yet from former Go-Betweens frontman

Unfiltered songs hit required nerve with finesse, vanity, irony and conceit

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Artist: Robert Forster
Genre: Alternative
Label: Tapete Records

The video for Inferno (Brisbane in Summer), the first single from the former Go-Betweens frontman Robert Forster’s seventh solo album, sees him mowing a lawn in a smart dark suit.

In many ways, such an image seems completely relevant to the man’s character, which seeps equal measures of finesse and vanity. Remember, this is a songwriter who once contributed a column about hair care (submitted and published with, presumably, no small amount of sardonic swagger) to Debris, a 1980s Manchester fanzine overseen by that city’s DJ/writer Dave Haslam.

There is much more to Forster than irony and conceit, however, as anyone who has listened to The Go-Betweens will confirm. The Australian group may have had two lives – 1977-1989 and 2000-2006, the latter iteration tragically halted by the death of co-founder Grant McLennan – and may have been praised to the hilt despite being unusually commercially unsuccessful, but Forster’s unfiltered songs very often hit the required nerve.

More recently, he has had a much higher profile than a former member of a cult band gets to experience. In the summer of 2017, his memoir, Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens, garnered much-deserved admiration for its unstinting honesty and insightful overview of friendship. And yet Forster's writing, while oozing impressive descriptive prose, couldn't fail to admire itself in the mirror. Ditto the recent affecting, historically comprehensive documentary, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, which identifies Forster as a moody, forlorn figure while former bandmate Lindy Morrison practically eviscerates him.


In the documentary, Morrison cites the outsider status of The Go-Betweens as the main reason for their lack of commercial success: “We didn’t look the part, we didn’t sound the part, we were too intelligent” – and exactly the same could be said of Forster’s solo material. His previous album, 2015’s Songs to Play, was his best in years, skilfully linking threads between past and present across songs that were, perhaps, too languid for their own good. As if to redress this, Inferno whacks that album on the ear and sends it on its way.

Passing of time

There is a surprise from the very start: loosely adapted from the WB Yeats poem Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop, Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment is so leisurely in its intent that it’s in danger of slipping by unnoticed. The song’s two-chord groove and piano lines, however, leads you into lyrics that contemplate the passing of time, and the eagerness of the spirit blighted by the weakness of the flesh.

No Fame pivots on ego and artistic privilege (“some people rise while others are happy to fall – I don’t need no fame”), while Inferno (Brisbane in Summer) leaps at you with a Velvet Underground drone-beat and a Television-like guitar lick.

The senior central character of Remain suffers from a mix of hubris and sulkiness (“big city screams, big city dreams remain... I know what it’s like to be ignored and forgotten when yours is the name that doesn’t come up too often”).

Pensive, less fractious autobiography continues in slower but just as outstanding songs. “It’s a new day, another night that I’ve survived,” 61-year-old Forster sings in The Morning. Life Has Turned a Page, meanwhile, is an affable sketch of someone else’s life, its twists and turns underpinned by unassuming melodic shuffles.

For an album that lasts a mere 35 minutes, a lot is packed into it – a few generations' worth, in fact. Aligning the confessional lyrics with music that is shrewdly textured (is that a xylophone we hear somewhere?) and nonchalantly performed, Forster achieves what is, to date, a personal best.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture