Robert Forster – Songs to Play

On the surface there’s not much new to say about a Robert Forster album. Some time ago, the itinerant Australian locked into his understated take on Austin singer-songwriter fare. But Forster’s first new album since 2008’s The Evangelist, and only the second since the 2006 death of his longtime Go-Betweens foil Grant McLennan, offers several subtle shifts for fans attuned to the man’s literary style.

Songs To Play finds Forster doing his best job yet of emulating idols Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt.  At the same time it’s his most effortless sounding solo outing, benefiting from a full band vibe atypical of a solo work. In recent years Forster has produced records for the John Steel Singers, a combo from his native Brisbane, and two of its members return the favor here with welcome accompaniment. Forster’s wife Karin Baumler (once a German pop artist in her own right) adds violin and backing vocals that at times conjure similarities to the Go-Betweens’ standout Tallulah. Completing the family affair, their daughter Loretta serves as Songs To Play’s cover star.

Forster was usually counted on for the Go-Betweens’ knottier, arty tracks, but he sounds far looser these days. Neither he nor the Go-Betweens were ever that controversial, but the near-total lack of edge here is nonetheless disarming. There’s a paean to Forster’s wife, a song professing belief “there’s someone to turn on the rain,” and others un-ironically titled “I’m So Happy for You” and “I Love Myself (and I Always Have).”

Such contentedness is not usually a reliable foundation for a compelling album, but aside from an ill-advised bossa nova track Forster makes it work. Think of it as a bookend to his excellent solo debut Danger in the Past, which sounded like the work of a man emerging from darkness to find happiness. Songs to Play adopts the vantage point of someone who’s grown to accept that happiness.

Actually, Songs To Play inverts the well-worn formula of an album of dark lyrical concerns ending with a ray of light. After plenty of positivity Forster ends with the ominous, trance-like “Disaster in Motion”: “then one year, it all went bad/ Disaster in motion is what we had.” Who knows where the road will lead from here.

Robert Forster
Songs To Play