“Tallulah” is one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, and reconfirms that 1987 was truly the annus mirabilis of indie guitar pop. The Go-Betweens seem to have an easy polish to their material undreamed of by most bands, let alone attained. Grant McClennan and Robert Forster are blessed with a rare ability, which I’m not quite sure is the same thing as pure talent: the choices they make in each song always seem right. Few songwriters could have closed as soulful and sublime a song as “Bye Bye Pride” with a magical oboe melody without either slipping into the coma of adult contemporary music or tripping off into the campy effervescence of, say, Saint Etienne. For music that is decidedly reserved, crackling with robust poignancy and given to tasteful understatement, Go-Betweens songs walk a very difficult and narrow path that seems easy to follow but isn’t.
In fact, as far as I can tell, “Tallulah”’s only flaw is its flawlessness. With so much nonsense clogging the market, I’ve grown accustomed to frowning my way through albums muttering “So far so good…but when is this going to crush my hopes?” “Tallulah”—from the vivacious “Right Here” to the plaintive “Hope Then Strife”—has no booby traps, no rickety floorboards that snap and splinter, no soggy banana peels—and that left me rather unnerved. While that may sound slightly odd, it’s an indication of the sadly impoverished state of modern music. To appreciate The Go-Betweens one almost has to remind oneself that having high expectations for pop music, and not having them cruelly disappointed, is still a possibility.
“Still a possibility”: The Go-Betweens bowed out with a shrug, their departure hardly noticed, over a decade ago (“Friends Of Rachel Worth’ notwithstanding). I hereby second the critics who have wondered aloud, with deep and wounded mystification, why The Go-Betweens were not hugely successful in the 1980s. With their feast of rich, evocative love songs that added new shades of complexity to the pop vocabulary, The Go-Betweens’ obscurity shames the many lesser contemporaries who enjoyed more commercial success; the “more” might be unnecessary in that sentence, actually. I must admit, however, that I do like the fact that The Go-Betweens are yet another quixotic affection, one more band that should have ruled the world but didn’t. Every music fan needs his crusade, after all, and I’ve got a few of my own.
My longest standing crusade has been The Smiths. Musically, I would compare The Go-Betweens favorably to The Smiths, and for me the comparison is interesting because it illustrates why some groups are great and others are merely good. The Go-Betweens are of the latter distinction, though perhaps I might favor them with “incredibly good”. But why? For sheer songwriting acumen, Forster and McClennan are as accomplished as Morrissey and Marr, so why are they not quite “as good as” The Smiths? For the simple reason that The Smiths were heaven-annointed in the way the great rock ‘n’ roll groups always are. Their extra, differentiating quality of greatness was perhaps indefinable, but it’s there in every song, on every album.
As I listened to “Tallulah” I was reminded of Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”, the ‘faultless painter’ for whom greatness was also denied:
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me.
I doubt very much that McClennan and Forster look on their work as Browning’s quietly resigned painter looked on his, and they shouldn’t. The Go-Betweens’ posthumous beauty is a wonderful anodyne to most of the dreck out there, full of spirit and striking lyricism, and their splendid songs are hardly the D.O.A. work of plodding hacks. But The Go-Betweens just couldn’t quite get into the heaven that’s shut for all but a few of the luckiest pop groups.
That said, The Go-Betweens have the advantage—in my case, at any rate—of being newly excavated, whereas I have played The Smiths to death over the years. Sometimes a dog-eared, marked-up paperback can have incredible, irreplaceable charm. Often, though, it can seem weighted down, oppressed with history, and so it is with the Smiths. The Go-Betweens couldn’t be newer and fresher to me; “Tallulah” will not be leaving my stereo any time soon.