Robert Forster – Inferno

Robert Forster’s reputation mostly – and rightly – rides on the Australian’s output alongside late bandmate Grant McLennan in the much-loved Go-Betweens. Often overlooked in the shuffle, however, is Forster’s stellar 1990 solo debut Danger in the Past.

For his seventh outing, the newly minted Inferno, Forster returned to Berlin and rekindled his connection with engineer Victor Van Vugt. A lot can change in 29 years, though, so a full reprise is hardly a realistic expectation. For one thing, much of Danger’s elegiac vibe flowed through the organ and piano of producer/longtime Bad Seed Mick Harvey, who remains absent.

Inferno is bookended by a pair of gorgeous piano and violin-laced tracks that achieve a similar majestic tone. Opener “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment” is actually a William Butler Yeats poem set to music – a move so intrinsically Robert Forster it’s a wonder it took this long to happen – while finale “One Bird in the Sky” is as fine a song as Forster has written under any guise.

Between those poles Forster indulges his main muses, country folk legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark – particularly on the affable “No Fame.” From virtually any other singer a claim like “I don’t need no fame” would prompt eye rolls, but in Forster’s case it actually sounds credible. Later on the standout, more urgent “Remain” he inhabits the persona of an artist recalling days “when my films just weren’t shown…I did my good work while knowing it wasn’t my time.”

The poppier title track – subtitled “Brisbane in Summer” for Forster’s hometown where he relocated his family after an extended stretch in Germany – adds radio-ready production touches unheard since the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane days (as if he’ll ever break through on radio – except perhaps in Brisbane). There are a few stumbles along the way – “The Morning” and “Life Has Turned a Page” are uncomfortably treacly, and the inclusion of bongos and glockenspiel on the latter is a bridge too far.

Danger in the Past’s title can be read as having left angst in the rear-view mirror, which is what Forster seemed to do on its closing track “Justice.” He’s now been married for over a quarter century to musician Karin Baumler, who added backing vocals to that album and whose voice and violin are more integral here. Today Forster may be less edgy or mournful, but more soulful and as erudite as ever.

In other words, along the way Inferno provides glimpses into most musical aspects of the charming and ever-so-slightly offbeat Forster – and that’s more than enough to justify the journey.

Robert Forster