Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Go-Betweens - 16 Lovers Lane

So when I hear you saying that we stood no chance,
I'll dive for your memory.  We stood that chance

16 Lovers Lane (1988) *****

I could proffer the cliche about how all the elements have finally come together, only the elements had already been coming together since 1983's Before Hollywood; the crucial difference is the songs - nearly every one of these ten tracks (all of the classic Go-Betweens albums are precisely that length; good if you feel it's better to err on the side of skimpy than excessive - I don't) are perfectly dusted acoustic-based jewels of pop songcraft, with "Clouds," the only remotely close to dull track, and it's not dull at all - merely lackluster compared to the other nine.  Apparently Grant and Amanda were breaking up at the time, making this the '80s answer to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, a song from which is even covered in the bonus tracks, is the other obvious parallel).  Holding up to those twin masterpieces of the Greatest Breakup Album of All Time is one tall order, and the Go-Betweens succeed in rounding off the genre to make it a trio.  It's seriously that good, and while arguing which of those three is indeed the greatest when the love of your life has morphed into the bane of it, 16 Lovers Lane outmatches the other two in terms of depth and maturity.  This is music made by adults for adults and if the adjectives subtle, thoughtful, and mature don't appeal to your sensibility, this album (or hardly any of the Go-Betweens' catalogue) won't appeal to you.  At all.  The poetic yet plainspoken lyrics achieve a rare sophistication virtually unheard of in pop - not in any Dylanesque wordplay, mind, but in the nuanced, complex attitude towards love and relationships.  The vast majority of pop songs, even the best of the lot, rarely amount to or even aim for much more than soppy adolescent cliches, with a worldview of romance that basically's summed up as puppy dogs & flowers or "Fuck you, bitch!"  Forster and McLennan approach the subject of love as two adult, grown men.  That this should be such a shocking breath of fresh air virtually unheard of in the annals of rock'n'pop merely underscores the shallow vapidity of most pop music.  What would be unexceptional in literature or even film becomes by virtue of practically no competition exceptional in the words of the Go-Betweens.

There's a cat in the alleyway
Dreaming of birds that are blue
Sometimes girl when I'm lonely
This is how I think about you
There are times that I want you
I want you so much I could bust
I know a thing about lovers
Lovers lie down in trust

The opener, "Love Goes On!" is already beyond Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in terms of directly accessible poetry and common sense, not that the tune (or album) is all about the lyrics:  with its sprightly jangle and lilting if downbeat Brit-Invasion melody, and Amanda Brown's sawing violin, it immediately leaps out as a perfectly catchy means to jumpstart the record.  Whoah - did I say "catchy"?  Yes, for once - well, approximately half the songs, but that's a serious improvement - the Go-Betweens shove their hooks front and center enough that they're, I daresay, immediately arresting and likeable.  This is their poppiest and most mainstream album, easily, and if the only downside is that there's precious little quirk around the musical edges, well sometimes sacrifices must be made in the quest for perfection.  "Streets of Your Town," was the big "hit" (a minor, minor one that scraped the U.K. charts, actually) that might be a smash today in a more appreciative climate than the tacky big-boom '80s; it's so bright and boppy and immediately infectious that it sounds almost like a track from a sitcom commercial, until you notice the lyrics - "Watch the butcher shine his knives / And this town is full of battered wives."  If "Quiet Heart," borrows a bit liberally from U2's "With or Without You," (the band have admitted as such), emotionally it's the polar opposite - modest and unassuming in its slow buildup of intensity, where Bono was flailing in histrionics.  "Love is a Sign," is Forster's signature tune from this longplayer, a deeply literate and painterly evocative slice of talky jangle sans bridge or key change, with a chorus only perfunctorily differring from the longwinded verses - in style and mood somewhat reminiscent of Paul Weller's "That's Entertainment," Forster claims to have penned this in the back of a cab for a Norwegian couple, who praised it as sounding like a Blood on the Tracks outtake.  "Devil's Eye," is one of the lesser tracks only because at barely under two minutes, it fleets by in a blink; it doesn't amount to much but is sheer loveliness.  The album closes with "Dive For Your Memory," which may not be the strongest track but perhaps cuts the deepest, as McLennan waves goodbye to Amanda with a clear heartache that he's finally come to peace about; he's no longer bitter and in tears, he understands that it's over, but he still has his memories, and is firm in his conviction that if they'd worked a little harder, they would still have stood a chance.  It's a bittersweet resolution to an album designed to get you through hard times like those.  At this point, the best Go-Betweens songs sound like long-forgotten friends making a reaquaintance when the record makes its play - in other words, as the best songs should be.

But there are still the bonus tracks to get to, and get to them we shall.  It almost seems unfair to the other Go-Betweens albums that this, their finest collection of songs, receives by far the finest collection of rarities on the second disc as well.  The single version of "Love Goes On!" pounds with more oomph! and fuller, bouncier arrangement; as expected, it's no better than the more muted and sparer original, but surprisingly, this overproduced version isn't any worse, either.  Let's hear the great song in a different arrangement two times in row!  The dusty "Mexican Postcard," could've drifted in from an earlier Go-Betweens era, and if I were unconverted to its atmospheric charms, the line, "The ghost of Sam Peckinpah sits in his lonely room," makes me a believer.  There's a vastly improved version of "Casanova's Last Words," (see my review of Liberty Belle) and "Rock'n'Roll Friend," would've been a classic A-side for a lesser band - heck, it should've been more than a mere B-side for the Go-Betweens themselves, it's so softly yet insistently anthemic:  can I really get that, "Can you do something about me?" chorus out of my head?  "Apples in Bed," is sweetly domestic, one the rare songs addressing the winsome subject of secretly peeping at your partner as she slumbers naked in bed (as far as I remember, only Ian Dury tackled the same fare).  The disc closes with a crisp, excellent man'n'guitar live cover of Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now," but it's the similarly spare original, "You Won't Find It Again," that is the knockout.  A truly jaw-dropping number that oozes raw talent, if you don't instantly fall in love with the tune I don't even want to know ya; why or how on earth a song of such quality was consigned to the cutting room floor boggles belief. For consigned it was, for the band broke up in 1989, for Forster and McLennan to pursue solo careers for a decade, before reuniting in the early '00s under the Go-Betweens banner once again.


  1. A 10/10, no question. I'll get round to covering The Go Betweens someday soon.

  2. A classic, of course, but it's interesting you should single out "Clouds" as the album's weakest song. It just has to be my personal favourite: that jangly background, understatedly lilting melody and some of Forster's best lyrics ever. "Visions of blue, I'm angry, I'm wise, and you, you're under cloudy skies". I've never heard a smarter chorus.
    But then it's the kind of album where everyone would have his own personal favourite. I've heard people mention "I'm All Right" as one of the greatest pop songs of all time... Not that I would argue.