Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Long Short Story

book cover

Eleven years after they finally attained major-label status with their sixth and formerly final album, 16 Lovers Lane, the Go-Betweens' The Friends of Rachel Worth arrives bearing Robert Vickers's tiny, arty, economically self-sufficient Jetset brand. Yet in America, where their cult was always less substantial than in Europe or their home continent, Australia, chances are excellent the new Jetset release will outsell the old Capitol one, because the Go-Betweens's U.S. base has grown steadily since the band ceased to exist. All of their '80s albums are now in print on Beggars Banquet, three for the first time domestically. And with the songs and sounds out there--stirred by word-of-mouth, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan's many solo and occasional collaborative efforts, and the indelibility of the work itself--more new fans sign on every year than old ones check out.

Juicing the story of this great postpunk reunion are the even greater postgrunge DIY-ers Sleater-Kinney, whose cheerleading after a San Francisco gig was what set Grant and Robert to recording together again. Although in their subtle way the Go-Betweens were and remain as crucially male-female as X or Sonic Youth, the two bands weren't an obvious match, not just because Sleater-Kinney are natural militants while the Go-Betweens are cultivated noncombatants, but because their respective musics sound it. So although the album was recorded in Portland with all three S-K members aboard, it makes sense that frontwomen Corin Tucker and/or Carrie Brownstein cameo on only two tracks. The regular is drum dynamo Janet Weiss, who replaces the legendary Lindy Morrison. Adele Pickvance fills the bass slot long occupied by label head Vickers. And Weiss's ex-lifemate Sam Coomes plays keyboards--just as he does as Weiss's singer-songwriting bandmate in yet another of her projects, the postdomestic Quasi.

Sonically, the Go-Betweens don't resemble Quasi--the Coomes-Weiss duo is much wilder, and much whinier. But the two share a modest sense of scale. Like it or not (in the '80s, the Go-Betweens still aimed to be stars), they're cult bands focused on small songs about manageable subjects. Sleater-Kinney sound as if they want the world and they want it now; the Go-Betweens sound as if they want breakfast but could probably hold out till lunch. Even with the serious pop fans who haunt alt shops and specialized Internet sites, they're not an automatic sell. I've played them for people who've loved them right off--musically, before registering more than a few words. But they can be damnably hard to explain to the convinced ecstatics and habitual malcontents who constitute so much of their theoretical audience.

There's no denying that the Go-Betweens are a bookish taste--if you're bored by the literary, you won't get 'em. But rather than lyric poets, as I once thought, Forster and McLennan are better conceived as short-story writers, with the concreteness and forward motion of voices and music compensating for imagistic technique and low word count. To quote their signature line--from "As Long as That," way back on 1984's Before Hollywood--they've "got a feeling, sounds like a fact," and that's how their songs work. They don't go in for the kind of old-fashioned tales that folk-identified bards like John Prine spin so well. But at their most fragmentary, the Go-Betweens are far more representational than Sonic Youth or even X, not to mention Sleater-Kinney (or Pavement). So to me they seem pretty firmly in the modern short-story tradition, the one invented by their fellow interloper from down under Katherine Mansfield as much as anyone--and attenuated to near intangibility in The New Yorker and elsewhere by writers convinced, unlike Mansfield then or the Go-Betweens now, that the quality of one's narrative art is in no way diminished by the narrowness of the milieu where it is situated.

Here it might be objected that the Go-Betweens can't be said to spread their net wide--they're very subcultural. But at least their characters don't know the Metro-North schedule by heart. Coming from Brisbane has been terrific for their frame of reference, as has touring on the cheap and living all over the world among artistic types touched just often enough to keep their heads up by major reward or renown. And a decisive plus has been their self-image as pop professionals, required by definition to deal in love songs. Not even McLennan, much the more relationship-centered of the two, has ever shied away from other subjects--the band's first stone classic, his "Cattle and Cane," nails with typically tender pespective another pop staple, a young man's nostalgia for his lost youth. But romance has been good to both of them in any case, and vice versa. Litterateurs rarely do love as much, and popsters rarely do it as well.

The Go-Betweens' romantic complaints refuse bile, raw self-pity, and the kind of wimp vulnerability gumsuckers with guitars have manipulated to their own ends since Cat Stevens was an infidel. They're analytic, they're bemused, they're amusing, they're emotional within bounds, they're as kind as they should be or a little kinder, they're sharp-tongued when it's called for, and often enough they're, well, loving--all of which is rendered more approachable by the flat thoughtfulness of their voices and tunes and more complex by the well-worked intricacy of their arrangements and structures. A little beneath the surface, at a level far from unreadable but appropriately personal, this music isn't so much about love as it is a model of love's preconditions. It has no equal in pop, and also no equal of any note in the contemporary short story, where convention commonly confuses darkness of worldview with depth of purpose.

None of this is likely to attract ecstatics or malcontents, I know, but perhaps it clarifies what's at stake for the band's fans, whose devotion mystifies outsiders. With Capitol's career-defining 1978-1990 and its glorious non-LP add-ons now inadequately replaced by the Beggars Banquet comp Bellavista Terrace, let me point out that they've never made a bad album and recommend the consensus oeuvre-topper Tallulah, followed closely by the consensus runner-up It Depends. The Friends of Rachel Worth definitely crowds into this second echelon. But as is only to be expected after 11 years, it doesn't quite mesh the way the Go-Betweens' true band records did. Lacking that sense of fills and figures stumbled upon over long performance histories and instantly integrated into the act not because they were brilliant, which these nonvirtuosos rarely were, but because they felt right, it seems somewhat one-dimensional musically; especially on McLennan's songs, there's the same singer-with-backup expediency that straitened his solo CDs, two of which surpassed any of Forster's on sheer tune power anyway. And near as one can tell, neither Pickvance nor--surprisingly, since she's such a powerhouse--Weiss provides the kind of subliminal cross-gender input with which steadfast drummer Lindy Morrison and, on the last two albums, mercurial cellist-and-such Amanda Brown always riled the band.

One can't be sure in part because, for some timespan or other, Morrison and Brown's input was romantic as well as musical, which ultimately contributed as much to the group's breakup as the marketplace's unfeeling demolition of their star fantasies. A decade on, apparently, neither couple is talking. So though what's happened in between is murky, one is tempted to wonder whether Pickvance (or the female drummer from across the sea who'll replace Weiss on tour) is Grant's girlfriend. Certainly the new lyrics suggest that the two old partners' life-paths have diverged. Robert is reliably reported to be happily married in Germany, a union presumably joined after the two years of seclusion sketched drolly in "German Farmhouse," one of four Forster songs here that aren't about love. These are the catchiest and most fetching tracks on the album, taking up surfing dreams, a fond and funny envoi to Patti Smith, and a life-swapping fable that when you think about it may be a love song after all. Comparatively, McLennan's five songs seem unevolved, conjuring the image of a single inamorata--willful, entrancing, a mystery lady brewing love and loss.

This femme fatale cum idée fixe may merely be an artistic creation, of course, or a conflation of my imagination; to some extent she no doubt is. But as an old fan, I catch myself thinking, He's 42 now--why doesn't he find himself a nice librarian? I remember too how surging McLennan melodies like "Right Here" and "Streets of Our Town" would launch whole Go-Betweens albums into a dimension The Friends of Rachel Worth never approaches. And then, to refresh my memory, I play McLennan's finest solo album, 1995's Horsebreaker Star. I note and very much enjoy how smartly the hooks circle by on their appointed rounds, far more accomplished in their pop professionalism than the songs on Rachel Worth. I wonder how many of these clear-cut little gems sprang from his own life, how many from friends or snatches of conversation or his by now considerable craft. And then my changer takes me to "Magic in Here," the McLennan title that leads the new album. The arrangement is a touch expedient, as I said. But that's relative to old Go-Betweens. Relative to Horsebreaker Star, it's quirky and homemade and riddled with pitfalls. "Lovers lie around on tangled knots," McLennan sings, describing a dock, and his life, and, of course, this music. It's a Go-Betweens album. It's like nothing else. Except, perhaps, love.

Village Voice, Oct. 17, 2000