Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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No Sex, No Funk, No Yellow Brick Road

Grant McLennan is an extremely unfunky Australian who in the course of a 17-year career has come to value appealing melodies over all other musical benisons, and Stateside, that would seem to make him an impossible sell. So what if his current album is his most consistently catchy ever, unrolling tune after sweet, simple tune for 77 minutes? The idea of a balding, pudgy, over-35 traditionalist holding his own on SoundScan is palpably ridiculous. Just ask Elton John.

As far as I'm concerned, McLennan already belongs in the rock and roll history books. I obviously wouldn't be writing about him if I didn't prefer him to John, whose focus on tunes is so single-minded he lets Bernie Taupin write his lyrics. And this preference is absolute when it comes to the elder Elton--the Elton whose annual hit or three has bored us unconscious since around the time McLennan met Robert Forster at Brisbane University in 1977. McLennan's calm, felt, modestly acerbic style of intelligence makes for a livelier maturity than Elton's shrewd if heartfelt appetite for bathos. But after six months of listening with great admiration, moderate wonder, and not enough excitement to Horsebreaker Star, I can think of a few Eltonesque qualities McLennan could use--qualities like vulgarity, ambition, greed, and a dexterous right hand, not to mention a trace of funk. Pop music takes more than tunes and smarts. It takes pizzazz. And if McLennan is ever to escape the cult status he's sick of, which if you want to be realistic about it isn't bloody likely, he'd better pick some up somewhere.

Horsebreaker Star is certainly the most impressive of McLennan's three solo albums. The first one, Watershed, puts more flex into its slick than it gets credit for. But since it sold not at all here, Atlantic's failure to release 1993's more studio-static Fireboy is defensible. Expecting a record company to behave like a foundation for the arts is a waste of hope. If the attendant penny-pinchers were to back a tour with the quartet McLennan brought to the Mercury Lounge July 5, his accrued ink and rep might feed a groundswell. But since he couldn't fill a small venue in the nation's largest "alternative" market, chances are it wouldn't. As remarkable as Horsebreaker Star is in some ways, it matters more than your average regrettable bad-seller for one reason above all--the Go-Betweens.

You have to feel for McLennan, who wishes he could put his band behind him. He's not even stupid or bitter about it--doesn't badmouth the music, claims friendly relations with all ex-members, still collaborates with Forster sometimes, performed "Was There Anything I Could Do" and the indelibly inspiring "Right Here" at the Merc. And it's not as if they broke up prematurely. A dozen years on, after Forster and McLennan emigrated to London to fulfill a potential everyone swore was there and then failed utterly to break through after they'd done their part of the job, they went on a major tour with the far wealthier R.E.M., which seems to have been fairly harrowing for all the sensitive types involved. The headliners wouldn't venture out together again for five years, and that was a luxury the Aussies couldn't afford. Although some would claim they were R.E.M.'s artistic equals, which I'd call a slight exaggeration, they were one step beyond day jobs, and Forster and McLennan's relationships with drummer Lindy Morrison and violinist-oboeist-singer Amanda Brown were falling apart. It was a sane time to pack it in. Soon, McLennan and Forster were back in Brisbane.

But while the Go-Betweens never got rich--never, in fact, enjoyed a major hit anywhere in the world--their always considerable cult is probably bigger than ever. This cult is usually explained as a function of the songs, and since the band amassed the best book of the '80s, songs are the root of it. Forster did all the writing at first--e.g. the early "Karen," which adores a librarian who provides all the help he needs: "Helps me find Hemingway/Helps me find Genet/Helps me find Brecht/Helps me find Chandler." Unfortunately, the casual shopper can only find that one on the cassette version of the 1978-1990 compilation that now comprises their U.S. catalogue--a compilation loaded with obscurities that, while replacing too many lissome faves, prove how deep their talents ran. The secret of that depth is credits that read Forster-McLennan, and over the years, as McLennan's voice became more prominent, so did the melodies. Only cultists recognized such distinctions, however. Beyond its fallacy of scale, the standard Lennon/McCartney = Forster/McLennan equation ignores the inconvenient fact that neither Go-Between could outsing George Harrison in the shower. And not until the final album, 16 Lovers Lane, were the tunes unmistakably surefire--by which time, many cultists would hold, the Go-Betweens' desire for a hit was distorting their priorities. They were trying to gloss over the tensions that made their songs exciting.

For miraculously, they were no longer merely or even mainly a writing combine--through more personnel changes than meant a damn thing, they had coalesced into a true group. The grooves were sharper, deeper, sometimes . . . jagged?; whatever, they were there. The arrangements interlocked, with Amanda Brown's apparently extraneous classical touches often integral as hook or rhythm trick. As you can see on the droll little Video Singles collection, they were manifesting dollops of personality and showmanship--Forster went in for gawky drag, and while maybe Brown wasn't what you'd call a looker, definitely she wasn't what you'd call camera shy. The chemistry of the two resident couples bubbled underneath. And most important, the two not quite adequate male voices added up in practice to a single smart and likable one. McLennan's workaday singer-songwriter chops and Forster's low-pitched demo-style near-recitative were so short on recognition factors that even fans had to concentrate to figure out who was at the mike. Their musical rough spots fit together nicely. And they were both unobtrusively literate residents of the showbiz-bohemian fringe, good at homely metaphor, compressed narrative, and legible if oblique emotion: "I feel so sure about our love I write a song about us/Breaking up" (Forster), or "When a woman learns to walk she's not dependent anymore/A line from her diary, July 24" (McLennan). The total effect was of one exceptionally intelligent and multifaceted subject. The Go-Betweens were too subtle withal. But there was plenty there for the getting.

By synchronicity, McLennan and Forster's three solo releases appeared more or less simultaneously, highlighting how distinct the two really are. Forster cemented his weirdo reputation on three off-key albums of studio-rock (Danger in the Past), country-rock (the import-only Calling From a Country Phone), and cover versions (I Had a New York Girlfriend, with Martha and the Muffins' "Echo Beach" hardly the most recondite choice). McLennan, meanwhile, made clear who had dominated the mechanical 16 Lovers Lane by turning into a rather out-of-date pop pro. However impeccable McLennan's writing, the production of New Zealand folk-rocker Dave Dobbyn reimagined the Oz of the '90s as the El Lay of the '70s, and if the attempt almost came off musically, it was a lousy way to sell records--the typical miscalculation of a pop intellectual whose formative musical experiences determine his notion of the commerciality he thinks he loves so much. In that context, McLennan's latest brainstorm is a step in the right direction. On its own, though, it's eccentric in the extreme. McLennan cut Horsebreaker Star by getting off the plane in Georgia and in nine days recording 30 songs, every damn one he had, with musicians he'd never met. The producer, whom he'd also never met, was R.E.M. buddy John Keane, which makes sense both saleswise and soundwise except that R.E.M. is R.E.M. and McLennan isn't--he lacks their rhythm section, their guitarist, their vocalist, and their brand name. At the Merc, McLennan announced (untruthfully, I presume) that "Simone and Perry" was number four in Paraguay and French Guiana. Too bad, he noted in his usual deadpan, us Yanks were so out of it.

In its U.S. variant, Horsebreaker Star borrows one track off Fireboy while dropping six titles from the worldwide double-CD. McLennan is writing so well that although the omissions are understandable, every one is worth hearing. And there's another drawback too--the reconstituted album seems even more uniform than the original, shortchanging the subdued unhookiness that in other respects is a strength. Like classic Go-Betweens, Horsebreaker Star gives up its pleasures gradually, mmm by mmm and aha by aha. But if at times it seems virtually inexhaustible, at other times it seems virtually boring. The sweet production touches go with the flow from synths to strings to Syd Straw, there are too many backing vocals and not enough licks, and McLennan isn't singer enough to put his resigned fables and snapshots of a grownup romantic in the relief they deserve. Even at the Merc, where he delighted me by showing up with a strong-voiced female electric guitarist who disappointed me by doubling the chords he was strumming on his amplified acoustic, I didn't find myself gulping down the lyrics as voraciously as I'd hoped. It was just tuneful verse, tunefuler chorus, strum-bam-thank-you-ma'am. McLennan told us how Eric Clapton asked him the secret of one "figger--that's a technical term," and shouted "Lead break" as he took an abstraction of a solo. Robert always was the main guitarist.

Yet in the end, as cultists know and too few others will find out, the lyrics are worth digesting. If my favorite line involves, of all things, songs--"Really loved the one about those L.A. freaks/Did it take a day to write or was it weeks?"--that's only to say he knows more about them than the competition. And he does love words. In fact, his most significant Forster collaboration these days is a movie script, which whatever its commercial prospects--"If I say these four words, immediately all the producers and studios are going to not be interested: no sex, no violence"--is a sign that he's onto something. Ask yourself, how many rock and rollers have left a good band to embark on a better solo run? Not John Lennon, not John Lydon, not hardly anybody. Van Morrison, only Them was really his backup group. Bjork, conceivably, if you like that sort of thing. And of course, Neil Young. The thing is, in a just history book the Go-Betweens would loom larger than Buffalo Springfield. And no matter how much you love him, the better half of the best songwriting team of the '80s still ain't Neil Young.

Village Voice, July 25, 1995