With burdens lifted, Songs to Play finds Robert Foster in a playful mood

The other night I dreamed that Robert Forster reviewed my review of the new Robert Forster album. He gave my review two stars. Figure out the meaning of that if you wish, but for me it’s clear: Forster’s words – whether observing someone else’s music or set to his own – carry weight. His first album in seven years is full of memorable lines as you might expect, and more surprisingly, is the most adventurous of his solo career to date.

An understanding of the long absence requires a little context. After working independently throughout the 1990s, Forster and Grant McLennan reformed The Go-Betweens with a new lineup. Three albums arrived between 2000 and 2005, and on Oceans Apart the band hit a high point to rival their 1980s achievements. There was a tenth record in progress when a twist of fate cut the reunion short. The sudden death of McLennan in 2006 shattered Forster, and cast a long shadow over The Evangelist, released two years later. Songs to Play is more, well, playful than its predecessor; loosened by the sense of a burden being lifted.

Television’s Marquee Moon enchanted the adolescent Forster, and that record is honoured on opener “Learn to Burn”. Though the guitars are high in pitch as usual, here they jab rather than jangle, while his vocals match the experimental spirit with a rare falsetto in the last chorus. “Let Me Imagine You” is more familiar, but full of intriguing touches.  It’s built upon pleasantly descending chords, culminating in a bluesy flat third (0:35, 1:00) that keeps the song from becoming too sweet-toothed for its own good. A phrase like “please don’t Twitter” can easily make you look desperate for relevance. It works because its delivery is understated, and free of affectation. Also because he’s Robert Forster.

There’s some charm to his unfashionable preference for privacy over disclosure, and this side of his personality is further illuminated elsewhere. To sample standout track “A Poet Walks”: “There are secrets that I could tell / But I won’t”. Self-mythologising was in The Go-Betweens’ blood (nothing’s changed, judging by the wryly scripted promotional video for Songs to Play).

McLennan and Forster came of age studying Bob Dylan’s interviews alongside his lyrics; deciding that if journalists are bound to reduce your music to a buzzword, you might as well do that for them. This tense song appears to describe a writer’s life – and Forster’s own – as one of intensified perception; all strolls past European canals and solemn gazing through shop windows. Fair enough if that’s too precious for your liking, but any whimsical balloons are popped down to earth by the climactic line: “a poet walks / shits and talks / just a thought”. It’s a testament to his skill as a lyricist that three words can switch the song’s tone on its head without locking either him or you into a strict interpretation.

In his 2009 collection of music writings The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, Forster coined the truism that the second last song on an album is always the weakest. Though surely facetious, a claim like that builds pressure to avoid the same trapping, and he wisely saves a highlight for late in the piece. “I Love Myself and I Always Have” shifts between Sonic Youth at their calmest, Lou Reed at his warmest, and double-time country rock, sounding effortless thanks to the years of effort invested into all these songs. Some deadpan tom-drum onomatopoeia adds a drop of typical humour. Not everything sticks – Love Is Where It Is” can’t escape from its bossa nova quotation marks – but this one misstep is followed by the beautiful “Turn on the Rain”, owing much of its power to wife Karin Baumler’s tremolo violin playing.

The stakes of Songs to Play are lower than they were on The Evangelist, but the years since then have emboldened Forster to carry on in the absence of his musical other half. Working at home in Brisbane with a younger band is a winning ticket, though he’s seldom made the same move twice in a row and will likely try something else on the next album, if there is one. Pursuits such as music criticism are calling (Forster: “you have to diversify”), and, more distantly, so is mortality. May his time left on earth be long and prolific. May his interference with my sleep be an isolated event.

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