As part of The Go-Betweens, arguably one of Australia’s most beloved groups, Robert Forster developed a reputation as a literary, pointed songwriter, whose songs often contrasted with the more melodic, immediate songs of his songwriting partner Grant McLennan. Since McLennan’s tragic passing in 2006 and the much belated popularity The Go-Betweens’ music has taken on, Forster has been busy telling the tale, with his book Grant & I and as part of the recent documentary Right Here. In the meantime though, he has also dependably come through with a new solo record. Inferno was recorded in Germany during its hottest summer in decades, and sees Forster in a comfortable, but self-reflective place.
Inferno opens with Forster’s reading of “Crazy Jane On The Day of Judgement”, a poem by William Butler Yeats – interestingly published as part of a collection titled Words for Music Perhaps, and one of a series based around the Crazy Jane character. This particular one is an exchange between Jane and the character of the Bishop, who during the poems appears to represent a kind of religious dishonesty and prohibition. The poem’s ambiguous tone sits comfortably with the lightly brooding, swaying mid-tempo backing, especially with the clear-skied openings of light on the repeated “naked I lay; the grass my bed” couplets. The pairing in fact goes back to 2015, when Forster was asked to play at a concert in Dublin commemorating Yeats’ 150th birthday.
Though, for the most part, the record continues in a fairly unassuming, understated direction, there is yet one relative surprise that finds its way in. “Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)”, released as the record’s lead single, is a full-on rock ‘n roll number, driven by the eighth-note piano rhythm. Though the album was recorded in Germany during its heatwave, the action here is taken to Brisbane, Forster’s hometown and a place perhaps more characteristically associated with the summer inferno being referred to. Though the song is quite rollicking, the delirious, heat-stricken imagery gives it a chaotic edge, that is further brought out by the sweeps of sweltering synths and guitar.
In contrast, songs like “The Morning” and “I’ll Look After You” have a palpable gentleness to them, especially the former – sounding very much like its title, a pretty and quietly uplifting ode to the friend that is the morning (on a tangential note, the acoustic melody in the chorus resembles that of Low’s 1997 song “Venus” – likely a coincidence, but who knows?). “Life Has Turned a Page” may be the album’s most laid-back song, a quaint family history centered around 1970s Queensland and New South Wales, with mentions of numerous towns in the area; his voice endearingly cracks as the major 7th chords and a glockenspiel melody add to the song’s dreamy, relaxed and lightly nostalgic mood.
“No Fame” has the feeling of a driving song, especially as it kicks into gear during the chorus, as well as the highway imagery – he sings “everyone can follow, everyone can overtake me”, highlighting his no longer having to worry about the reception his art attains – in a way perhaps having finally reached a place in his life where he is able to say that. “I’m Gonna Tell It” goes for a similar sentiment, perhaps underlining his desire to keep telling his stories, over a lightly stomping instrumental, the light again opening up in the bridge – as he sings “someone says it’s a book, I’ll ghostwrite it; someone says it’s a movie, I’ll make it”.
Finally, “One Bird in the Sky” draws the record to a close as a wistful late afternoon meditation on his place in life, a place of quiet contemplation. The tender composition is buoyed by gorgeous string melodies, as he repeats a mantra that seems to emphasise his determination to continue experiencing his world as best he can, even as entering the latter years of his life. It makes for a fitting end, with the kind of melancholy-infused optimism that Forster has nailed over the years.
With Inferno, Robert Forster has crafted another reliable collection of songs and narratives. Even compared to some of his previous solo albums, Inferno may be his most humble offering, however, this isn’t to a detriment by any means, as it remains engaging all the way through. The songs feel characteristically comfortable, and these are clearly nine that he believes in, each one crafted with care and effort, delivered with crisp instrumentation and production. It is, in many ways, a thoroughly pleasant record – one where Forster seems content, but still with plenty to tell and to believe in.