As a fickle music fan easily transferring affection to the latest exciting new performer, it is easy to miss out on the joys of eagerly following an artist through their (at the risk of sounding like a ‘Strictly’ contestant) journey. Since hearing ‘Part Company’ in 1984, The Go-Betweens and subsequently Robert Forster’s solo career have been a significant part of my life. As Forster’s working pace is measured, allowing songs to percolate like a fine blended coffee, it does make every new release an event to cherish, especially due to Forster’s health issues (hepatitis) meaning that new songs should not be taken for granted.

With ‘The Candle and the Flame’ being preceded by the news of Karin Baumler’s (his wife and musical companion of 32 years) cancer diagnosis, the preciousness of time and music has been foregrounded. The album has the air of a family and friends coming together as a support network so Forster and Baumler are joined by their children Louis (of The Goon Sax) and Loretta together with Adele Pickavance (from the later iteration of The Go-Betweens) on bass and Scott Bromiley and Luke McDonald (both of The John Steel Singers) who have contributed to his most recent albums, ‘Songs To Play’ and ‘Inferno’.

Opening track, ‘She’s a Fighter’, is the only song written after they received the news and Baumler underwent chemotherapy, even though much of the album could easily be viewed through that prism. Forster refers to it as his “first two-line song” and having “out-Ramoned the Ramones” (“She’s a Fighter / Fighting for Good”). It is heavy on rhythm guitar and filled out by Baumler’s xylophone sketches. While that feels like the skeleton of a song, the following track “The Tender Years” is exquisite, one of Forster’s greatest ever songs which is the highest of accolades. He has long had the capacity to pen memorable images and sing in a style pitched perfectly between arch and heartfelt. This an occasion where I would like to just write down the notes, chord sequences and lyrics of a song to illustrate its perfection but lack the musical vocabulary to do so. Just go and listen to it now! The song can be interpreted as autobiographical and a tribute to Baumler from its opening verse:

I see her through the ages

She’s a book of a thousand pages

That you can thumb

Images of her are vivid

Her beauty has not withered

From her entrance in Chapter One

I’m in a story with her, I know I can’t live without her

Subsequent references to a German city and babies, which would be Louis and Loretta, adds weight to that interpretation.

There is a hint of Velvet Underground in the rhythm guitar led ‘It’s Only Poison’. With its references to poison that “is meant to drive you mad” and “you can heal yourself”, it feels like a response to the invective of the world.

‘The Roads’ captures how the topography of a country and frequent journeys become a map that gets etched into the mind and heart. With its acoustic guitar accompaniment, overlayed with McDonald’s piano. Christine Dunaway’s violin and James Harrison’s cello, it is gorgeous. The song offers ample scope for playing an enjoyable game of Forster bingo with many of his lyrical tics in evidence: unusual, specific places (Heinsbach to Mengkofen), features (bridges) and meteorological conditions (fog and snow). For an Australian, rain has appeared surprisingly frequently in his back catalogue, no doubt partly for its metaphorical quality, but here it only arrives during the closing ‘When I Was a Young Man’.

‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’ has a startling image of memory and the slippage of time (“I’m walking to school in ’69 / The next day I’m 35”) Forster’s acoustic guitar and Baumler’s backing vocals giving the song a folk tinge. In contrast, ‘Always’ has a full band sound with drums, Pickavance adding congas as well as bass, and Louis on arresting toy piano.

‘There’s a Reason to Live’ with its immaculately scrubbed guitar and its reference to finding a ticket stub in a jacket pocket from a forgotten show captures the emotional importance of small items sparking memories. ‘Go Free’ offers up the line that forms the album’s title and aptly has the air of a slow burner.

‘When I Was A Young Man’ enables Forster to pay oblique homage to his heroes (Elder brothers I had a few / One was named David and the other was Lou.”) It becomes clearer that this must be Bowie and Reed when later he refers to “a new David and there was Tom” (presumably Byrne and Verlaine). 

Forster’s style is suited to this autumnal, autobiographical approach. While it contains a whiff of melancholy, there is a greater sense of a performer content with his life and seizing the small pleasures of each day. It makes ‘The Candle and the Flame’ a gift to be treasured.

Robert Forster: The Candle and the Flame – Out 3rd February 2023 (Tapete Records)

Robert Forster – Video: The Tender Years

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.