Monday, February 18, 2008

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby vs. 16 Lovers Lane

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby vs. 16 Lovers Lane
by Gillian Watson




Send Me A Lullaby is the Go-Betweens’ most maligned album, but “maligned” is too strong a word. It’s usually ignored, or patronised. Critics and fans don’t like it because isn’t “true” to the band’s “classic” lush, dreamy sound. They argue that the album is marred by its reliance on a gawky imitation of the Go-Betweens’ heroes, Talking Heads, and that it convulses unnaturally rather than flows. This is a fallacy: Any Go-Betweens album would be barely competent humdrum rock if not for the colour of the members’ personalities brightening the rudimentary guitar/bass/drum sound. Their music became literary and romantic as they did, and by the same logic, Send Me a Lullaby is as pretentious and clumsy as the youths who made it at the time. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan devoured music and films; they wanted to emulate their idols. And in turn, Send Me a Lullaby, their debut, is the awkward teenage cousin of their canon: Too old to be cute (no more songs about girls in libraries), they weren’t accomplished and confident enough to carve out a convincing sound of their own (that wouldn’t happen until 1983’s Before Hollywood). Lullaby is certainly ungainly, sometimes even ugly; it barely holds together, and yet, it could be my favourite, primarily because of its gaucheness. The band were at the same stage I am now—that period in your youth when everything starts getting complicated, when you love things with an ache you haven’t experienced before and don’t quite know how to cope with, when you’re old enough to have memories, when you’re old enough to realise that everything won’t turn out how you want it to. It’s painful and pretty.

Those words appropriately describe “Your Turn, My Turn,” Lullaby’s opening song. It’s an odd choice for an album opener—it’s meandering and maudlin rather than punchy and peppy. Robert Forster hesitates before he opens the door and then walks in, starts pacing in clumsy circles, disconsolate. A doleful piano and tense bassline that hint at anger and recrimination follow. The tune is awkward and aching, and yet, there’s a stylized quality to it—like the soundtrack to a lost detective TV show in black and white. It’s the sound of adolescents waking up to the simultaneous beauty and awfulness of life, but with the youth’s awareness of how romantic their own misery must look from the outside. It’s one of the album’s rare occasions where Forster displays the knowingness that was later to become his trademark. Listen to “Careless,” where he reflects on a relationship that’s got too grown up too fast: “It used to be fun/something to share/but now we’re both jealous/’cause now we both… care”. There’s none of the winking playfulness of later Forster compositions in his muted delivery—only weariness, a resigned sigh over paranoid bass and guitar that sounds like someone being shaken, a cathartic sound that signifies equal distance between beauty and suffering.

When Send Me a Lullaby was recorded, relationships in the band were constantly shifting; Forster was torn between McLennan, his jealous friend, and Lindy Morrison, his new lover. It didn’t help that Forster’s respective partners in music and romance shared an intense dislike of each other. This tension leaves its mark all over the album, from the stilted, taped-together art-funk of “The Girls Have Moved” to the album’s menacing, jarring core, “Eight Pictures.” The latter track sounds nothing like anything that follows or precedes it, yet it sums up the album’s entire mood somehow. “Eight Pictures” is Forster’s first struggle with the pain of memory: “I was working at the ice rink/Spring and summer that year,” he stonily recalls. McLennan’s bass throbs sympathetically. What makes “Eight Pictures” so singular, so extraordinary, however, is Morrison’s cameo role as the woman who has wronged Forster. Her angry, incoherent, arrhythmic drum solo storms into Forster and McLennan’s little boys’ misery party, slaps them in the faces, tells them to wake up and realise that life isn’t a Hollywood movie from the ‘40s, that human relationships are messy and complicated. “Eight Pictures,” exemplifies the whole album as a noisy and necessary argument set to music.

Perhaps if the Go-Betweens had a younger fanbase, Send Me a Lullaby would be the fan favourite. But most Go-Betweens fans have followed the band’s progress as people and grown old with Forster/McLennan. So the final album in their best-known incarnation, 16 Lovers Lane, is recognised almost universally as their masterpiece, the realisation of “that striped sunlight sound.” I hate it, but hate is too strong a word. I admire the songcraft, and the subtlety and complexity of the arrangements, of course. And the band sounds confident as ever; you’d never know it was to stand as their epitaph for a decade. But 16 Lovers Lane is the smug, annoying friend who gets into a serious relationship before you and suddenly believes she now owns the key to the universe and all its mysterious holdings. The awkwardness, the jealousy, the self-consciousness—that’s all been banished. Grant and Lindy still hate each other, Robert and Lindy are still licking their wounds after a messy break-up, Robert and Grant are still fighting to be leader, except they’ve realised they don’t need to be there any more or deal with this shit, they can get out whenever they want. The sound of 16 Lovers Lane reflects this—it’s light and diffuse, and the many professional-sounding layer all sound a mile away from each other. The group’s most abrasive (and interesting) personalities, Forster and Morrison, are silenced or dulled.

16 Lovers Lane is a Valentine’s Day album; from the title (I don’t care if it’s ironic, it’s fucking awful) to Forster and McLennan’s lyrics, which have gone from pinpointing indefinable emotions to rolling around in cliché and meaninglessness like pigs in shit. What is a “quiet heart”? Where is the wit and originality in lines like: “No matter what you say/no matter what you do/I wanna be the one/and love is a sign”? Forster isn’t in a relationship; he’s watching on the sidelines while his best friend’s bathing in the glow of first love, and the best he can muster is a limp “I’m all right”? 16 Lovers Lane makes me feel nothing, and it hurts me more with the Go-Betweens than anyone else, because their songs grow from emotions. They’re not about interesting dynamics or danceable basslines. Without emotion, there’s nothing. Except, of course there must be emotion in 16 Lovers Lane—just not a one I identify with. It must capture the sound of being in love, otherwise so many adults I respect wouldn’t champion it. It has been much more successful than Send Me a Lullaby, and not just critically, but it’s actually reached people. It’s easy to find; by contrast, I had to pay £17 for an Australian import of Send Me a Lullaby that took two months to arrive. Even if I played Send Me a Lullaby to my friends, I doubt they’d be interested—it’s too self-conscious, too monochrome, it doesn’t “rock out” enough. Play 16 Lovers Lane to anyone who likes a good tune and they’ll come round. But for me, Send Me a Lullaby is the most successful Go-Betweens album. It perfectly captures this period of my life: jealous glances and doors slamming and mattresses heard creaking from the other side of a wall. 16 Lovers Lane sounds like receding hairlines and stonewashed denim and pleasant drives with your attractive wife in a saloon car. It’s the sound of slippers warming by the fire. I have nothing against warm slippers; there will come a time in my life where I look forward to putting them on. But right now, that’s not what I’m looking for.

Gillian Watson is about twelve and therefore has written fuck-all, apart from a news story about Castlemilk that she wrote for her work experience at a free newspaper two years ago. [actually, she's sixteen -ed.]

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6 Comments:

Blogger Ally Broon said...

Gillian, if that really is the first thing you've ever written about music, it's phenomenal.

I'm sourcing a copy of Send Me a Lullaby now.

February 21, 2008 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger toddthesecond said...

I'm a bit biased, but yes, this was wonderful. I've owned SMAL for, oh, 20 years now, and your essay has inspired me to pull it out for the first time in, oh, 18 years now.

Just curious, Gillian -- what do you make of Before Hollywood? That's always been my favorite, primarily because it still had that roughness from the first, but less studio polish than the later days.

Also, FYI, not to embarrass you, but I sent your essay to Robert Vickers, former bassist for the GBs and all around wonderful guy.

February 21, 2008 at 6:52 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

Well shit - the stuff I wrote when I was 16 makes me want to die, so I'm rather seethingly jealous of this. Please keep writing.

February 21, 2008 at 9:57 PM  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

holy shit todd.

February 21, 2008 at 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the words "Robert", "Vickers", "forwarded" and "your essay" I can only say: fucking hell!! Thanks for liking the piece, I was scared it read like something from a school magazine.

Before Hollywood might be my favourite Go-Betweens album, actually. It's the only one apart from Send Me A Lullaby that holds together, and it marries the sort of... musical elasticity? of that album with the pretty bits from the other ones.

Gillian W.

February 24, 2008 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger toddthesecond said...

Gillian -- Robert wrote back with some comments and I forwarded them to your hotmail. Let me know if you didn't get them.

February 25, 2008 at 9:08 AM  

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