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A-Brim With the Doing of Life – “The Candle and the Flame” by Robert Forster

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I really don’t know how to say this, how to convey music’s impact on me without betraying it with platitudes and saccharine bromides. Oddly, perhaps, but without exaggeration, I feel almost exquisitely, tenderly suffocated by it, held a bit breathless inside the press of its beauty, its insistent beauty, how it entwines as it does, spun throughout memory and trailing behind it, vine-like, vein-like, helping support the ‘what’ of what I remember while simultaneously overtaking it, music’s contours and resonance never dimming, the soundtrack becoming the movie. As has been made clear this is all speculation. I’m not entirely sure – am in fact quite ignorant about – how it works exactly. I only know that without music I’d be less dimensional, more bound to the lure of the quotidian, which is to say my life would be much duller and how I love others would not be as strong. All this reflection comes to the fore with the arrival of Go-Betweens co-founder Robert Forster’s latest solo album (The Candle and the Flame, Tapete Records Feb. 3rd) for reasons I hope I can find the strength of insight to lay bare.

Were there a standard by which one measured a Robert Forster record, The Candle and the Flame both would and would not fit inside that framework. Yes, from the first moment there’s zero doubt as to who this is. We’ve heard that sound just about our whole lives, know of and expect from it that mix of the comforting with the slightly discomfiting, the intimate and the worldly passing notes to each other behind our backs. Forster always sounds bound inside his own complicated honesty and that remains the same. But this time, even during Candle‘s gestation over the past few years, before that bastard ‘life itself’ threw some very serious wrench into the situation, the content in the clutch of songs he had, though certainly feeling right and pointing with some optimism toward the next record, leaned a bit further toward the personal than was generally his tendency. Then in July 2021 came that just-mentioned wrench and the personal, by deeply jarring necessity, got a whole lot more personal as Karin, his musical partner and wife of 32 years, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

As it could not help but do, everything at that point pivots. The work Forster had done up to that point, the strong handful of songs he’d already written, didn’t go anywhere and in fact, in a way, became an intrinsic piece of the new life his family suddenly had thrust upon them. Often, as the sun went down on another ‘new normal’ day, Robert and Karin would both take up acoustics and strum songs, including the recent ones since they’d been a part of the air in the house for months and even years. “When you’re concentrating on a song,” Robert says, “the rest of life goes away, and music became a beautiful escape hatch for us.” Music, then, in its organic, spellcasting way, became an essential part in the rhythm in their abruptly different routine – chemo, tests, rest, music – as if to underline that basic fact: it cannot help but heal.

Soon, as it only can in times like this, life adapted. The couple’s son Louis (of The Goon Sax) came around most days and joined in the sessions, as did daughter Loretta when possible (both are there with mom and dad in that clip below). Adele Pickvance, among many others, was bringing by prepared meals and it wasn’t long before the ex-Go-Between was strapping on her bass. And so it went though at that point there wasn’t really any intention of turning it all into an album. It was more to have a record of what they did during this extraordinary time of crisis and resolve that led them to the studio. There, with little time or desire for the niceties of the process, they recorded as a group, no headphones no overdubs no anything beyond the plain beauty of human beings in a room singing these songs together, eyes on eyes, heart to heart, the results as quietly intense and palpable as anything we’ve heard, think Blood on the Tracks minus the Baudelarian somersaults. If that sounds overstated the results prove otherwise.

This is a record of somber hope, stubborn joy and a steadfast buoyancy perched on a wobbly fulcrum, grief and fear on one side, grit and belief on the other. This being who it is, no one familiar with Forster’s work and in possession of their wits would bet against him and Karin landing anywhere but on the latter half of that divide. Candle, sparse in its way but rich and direct is, start to finish, a-brim with the doing of life. And, if we may say, what a start.

“She’s a Fighter,” bristling with the energy and spark it deserves, also, thanks to the tight acoustic coil it’s wrapped around, rather beams with a proud and loving streak of pure appreciation, its brevity, deft punch and minimalist lyric – add “fighting for good” to that title you have the words entire – as well a ringing curl of electric each contributing to an impression of basic awe and admiration toward its subject (notably, though nearly every track conceivably fits ‘that’ narrative only “Fighter” was written post-diagnosis). As opening statement it’s a stunner even though, by every thinkable metric, the record’s just getting started. There is simply no slack to be taken up anywhere on here, a fact the next track underlines with astonishing grace.

While covered at appropriate length when premiered back in November, “Tender Years” merits a second mention if only for the extent to which it’s arguably this album’s anchor. It is also, however, crucially germane to a larger point lurking a few paragraphs hence so for now allow me to simply say it’s a track that outlives memory and leave it there for a moment. There’s plenty more to talk about.

“It’s Only Poison” gives the word ‘jaunty’ a dose of the existential and brought to mind the unique phrase ‘grounded in airiness’ which is a feat, now we think of it, few but Forster could accomplish and thus surprises us not. “The Roads” has an around-the-campfire feel to it though the smoke wisping up through the firelight is the drift of reminiscence, the flames and their glow the low constant heat of yearning heard in the voice as it maps out a past where, yeah, maybe there’s some danger but mostly just the wander – the wonder – of a fully-lived life. On the quietly transcendent “I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time” the harmony with Karin speaks the expected volumes, the two blending intuitively and really there it is, this gist between them that, like time itself, is almost alchemical, mystery unraveled through personal nostalgia and it’s difficult to think of a more relatable process. We have all, goes the phrase, been there. And that’s the thing with this guy and always has been. “I’ve always written from life,” he’s said and, yes, true of many writers but with Forster that personal perspective has a habit of crossing the singer/listener divide as we lay slides of our own lives over the images given. Empathy, were it a drug, would be a powerful one, which isn’t to mention that were that the case he’d have to retitle this song.

And thus do we go, through “Always,” propulsive and shining with craft, existentialism with a playful gait. Through the reflective “There’s a Reason to Live” that gives the passing impression that maybe Richard Thompson got ahold of a couple pages of Forster’s diary, there’s this almost-solved puzzle of life aspect to it – core line: “what you do, it matters” – that’s so simply put it stuns (which, by the way, as a phrase of purpose, fits this guy like a finely-tailored suit). Through “Go Free,” written during lockdown but surprising no one by straying into the relatable commons, this time parental it would seem given the ache of acceptance in the tone and the vaporous, letting-go breath with which ‘free’ come out each time. Through to the last track “When I Was A Young Man,” stripped-back, unvarnished, just a singer and a couple of acoustics leaning into the early-life halcyon, as you do. Referents slip past with names like Dave and Lou while promise, with its bewildering potential pulls from every inch of the perimeter. It’s a lissome coda to a brilliantly understated piece of work, one that shuns most adjectives associated with the term ‘career-capping’ even as it no doubt qualifies as such. As a track, as it happens, “Young Man” also has us arriving back up to top.

Personally, what a Robert Forster record does, without fail, is draw me back in a reverse blur through the whole of his career and there I am hauled back up through the whirlpool and I’m putting “I Need Two Heads” on the turntable in 1980, bought, as was so often the case, after reading a review in the NME. Nothing else, then or since, sounded like it. Intimate and opaque, the songs Robert and Grant produced were stark, they were revealing and intriguingly sly, seeming to, somehow, withhold their hands even as the cards were laid on the table. None of which explains – nor could have led me to expect – that, during my second spin through “Tender Years,” amidst the mention of Heidelberg (where Robert and Karin lived for a time) and that whole glow of love in memory’s hold, I simply fell apart, hunched over the notebook heaving with sobs. As it likely goes without saying this is not a typical response when putting together a review and I had to stop and try and piece the ‘why’ together and it only took a second to understand.

It’s Berkely, it’s 1979, eight or nine months before I’d pull that single from its sleeve and I’m in sudden blinding love. I’d heard of her through her mixtapes, she of me through mine. Met her in person at (of all places) a Magazine show on the night of the day I’d decided I was definitely going to London and, kismet of kismets, she had purchased her plane ticket that afternoon to do the same. And then there we were a few nights later in my room on Haste St and for the 23-year-old me it’s the purest, most brilliant strike of Fate I’d thenceforth ever feel and here in the kitchen some forty-four years later, knowledge of that love’s tragic, disintegrating 6-year fade – eaten away at by a debilitating illness – overcame me as Forster’s memories unlocked mine which in term merged, obliquely perhaps but no less visceral, with what the two of them are going through. But really, as much or more than all that, it’s the fact that the body of work this guy and his late mate McLennan have created over the decades – and that Robert’s still creating – arcs in such exact tandem across that entire timeline that helped make sense of my rare and out-of-nowhere burst of emotion (I truly can’t remember the last time a song did that to me).

The idea a record can, without guile or artful intent, evoke such a response in someone as it has in me, is remarkable. Music, like love, is a power. It can – we say again – heal, it can charm, and it can, indeed, change your life (one of the few clichés worth embracing). The easy pace of its character may, on its surface, make The Candle and the Flame an unlikely candidate for such claims but in truth the record reverberates with strength, its songs, those honest honest songs, so indelible and moving, so emotionally tensile that the damned record becomes invaluable by the time you’ve finished the first listen. In a word, a masterstroke.

[Get The Candle and the Flame here]

Listen to Robert Forster on Stereo Embers The Podcast