The Go-Betweens
Liberty Belle & the Diamond Express / Tallulah / 16 Lovers Lane

robert Forster and Grant McLennan are my kind of guys. Thoughtful, wary, bemused, these are men who have known love and lost it, kept their humor, scribbled earnestly in their notebooks and then reconfigured their experiences in songs as wise and deep as their friendship. At their frequent best Forster and McLennan combine the Beatles of “She’s Leaving Home” with the Beatles of “Eight Days a Week”: at once baroque and ecstatic. Their songs honor the complexity of their emotions.

What’s remarkable about the Go-Betweens is what Eric Weisbard correctly called their knack for “simultaneously evolving as songwriters and as people”, little by little. Forster, nominally in charge at first, was a (very) poor man’s David Byrne until his partner’s melodic smarts loosened him up. Right up through 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane they never recorded a bad album. But they could never get it exactly right either—they were more comfortable with strumming than rocking—and this is why fans disagree about what to recommend to a prospective cultist. When your songs honor the complexity of your emotions, they’re going to be uneven or just plain embarrassing on occasion.

Then there’s the disarming modesty of what’s known as the Go-Betweens Dictum: ten modest tunes, on albums no longer than forty minutes, five songs apiece by Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, a plan to which they’ve adhered over the years with a concentration verging on the devotional (brevity, according to Forster and McLennan, isn’t just the soul of wit: it’s the heart and brains, too). Beginning as a folk duo with an uncommonly sunny disposition—in retrospect the first sign that there was something strange about them—Forster and McLennan added stalwart drummer Lindy Morrison to record 1983’s breakthrough Before Hollywood; McLennan moved to putative lead guitar when new bassist Robert Vickers joined in 1984; and the classic lineup was complete in 1986 with Amanda Brown adding crucial support on violin, oboe, third guitar and harmonies.

Jetset completes the remastering job it started two years ago, releasing the Go-Betweens’ last three (and best) albums. The results are stunning, enough to give Rykodisc enthusiasts pause: rare photographs, intelligent essays and liner notes by contributors jazzed by the opportunity to discuss their heroes, and choice B-sides by a band confident enough to discard terrific songs left and right.

Most fans consider Liberty Belle & the Diamond Express the Go-Be’s best. While it’s certainly their most ambitious (strings! bassoons! Tracey Thorn!), the strain in creating a Great Album is hell on Forster and McLennan’s modesty—always their greatest gift. “The Wrong Road” and “The Ghost in the Black Hat” show that McLennan’s starting to read (and believe) his own reviews. The remastering improves the original album’s boxy sound; “Spring Rain” finally swaggers instead of plods, as it always should have. The shimmering “Bow Down” is Forster at his most gracious (“don’t you ever slow down”), “Head Full of Steam” his most sexual. And “Apology Accepted” deserves to be blasted from every John Cusack wannabe’s boom box.

In a pinch Tallulah stands as their most representative album: alternately breathtaking in its acuity (“Bye Bye Pride,” “Hope Then Strife”) and its gaucheness (the notorious “Cut It Out,” a terrible stab at Hall & Oates funk)—no wonder your friends “can’t get into them”. The remastering does wonders for the dated production; you can make out the acoustic strum in “You Tell Me” and Amanda Brown’s harmonies everywhere. McLennan’s writing is at its heartbreaking best: being at the wrong end of a love triangle has rarely been dissected as mercilessly as in “Someone Else’s Wife”. The opening line of “Spirit of a Vampyre” (“I was slowly dying in a clinic outside L.A.”) ushers in the persona Forster plays to the rafters on Tallulah: the observant litterateur (“The Clarke Sisters”) who’s also an unabashed sentimentalist; his breathless “Come on! Come on!” at the end of “You Tell Me” is the most endearing moment on any Go-Betweens record.

In his liner notes to 16 Lovers Lane, Andrew Male calls the album “the indie Rumours”, a comparison which strikes me as inaccurate. For one thing, Lindy Morrison isn’t Mick Fleetwood—or, rather, the drum machine that takes her place on most the album’s tracks isn’t. Airy, fragrant as a sea breeze, with Brown’s instrumental work at its rococo apex (the oboe solo in “I’m Allright” is just beguiling), 16 Lovers Lane is the pop album the Go-Betweens had always threatened to make. New bassist John Willsteed’s flamenco flourishes tickle Forster’s muse, which at long last unleashes the melodic sensibilities he’d previously quashed; it’s the first Go-Be’s album on which his songs best McLennan’s. “Clouds”, “I’m Allright” and especially “Love is a Sign” are as precise as the best lyric poetry. McLennan, comfortably dating Brown, comes off a bit complacent; two of his tracks (“The Devil’s Eye” and “Was There Anything I Could Do?”) are best described as boilerplate. But then the quiet heart of “Quiet Heart” skips a beat, thanks to Forster’s great harmonica solo, and “Streets of Your Town” is one giant hook, big enough to hide the battered wives and butcher knives.

The B-sides are a mixed bag, as B-sides tend to be. Not one of them would have improved the original albums’ track sequence, but several deserve place on your Go-Betweens mix CD: the rock and roll wife lament of “Rock and Roll Friend”, Forster’s death reverie “When People Are Dead” and a welcome return to the anger of yore on McLennan’s “You Won’t Find It Again’, as bitter as his 16 Lovers Lane songs are soft. Like any good relationship loving the Go-Betweens is as much exhausting as rewarding; these three outstanding albums are the place to start making their acquaintance.

Liberty Belle: 8
Tallulah: 9
16 Lovers Lane: 7

Reviewed by: Alfred Soto
Reviewed on: 2004-11-15
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