Oceans Apart shows the Go-Betweens still at their peak, using maturity and perspective to match, admittedly, the maturity and perspective of their younger years.
The Go-Betweens had a career in two distinct halves, with an ‘80s run of smart pop followed by a 12-year gap before a three-album return (cut short by Grant McLennan’s early death). Despite the lengthy hiatus and the change in both sound and context, the Brisbane group doesn’t have a better era. Even if the first half gets a slight edge, their final studio release, 2005’s Oceans Apart, shows them still at their peak, using maturity and perspective to match, admittedly, the maturity and perspective of their younger years. For pop-rock that manages to be as surprising as it is catchy—both lyrically and musically—the band’s last one may have a set a new standard in an already strong run.
The opening track, McLennan’s “Here Comes a City,” shows an urgent band, the guitar and bass fitting together to match the chug of the train described in the song. The mundane details of the verses— “I’m sitting here with three other people”—simply disguise the real reason for the train ride, artfully phrased as, “Pushing you away from me.” If the song risks turning dark, McLennan upends the mood with a comical observation: “Why do people who read Dostoevsky/ Look like Dostoevsky?” The song epitomizes the new Go-Betweens in just over three minutes: energized, emotional, bookish and surprising.
The other core member of the group, Robert Forster, follows with “Finding You,” one of his prettiest songs. The sentiment here could turn maudlin, but Forster keeps much about the track too ambiguous and too clever to even approach that territory. For all the melodic pleasantness of his delivery, the bridge complicates everything we’ve heard so far, but rather than undoing our expectations, it simply enriches the experience of the song.
And so goes the album. The group weds precise lyrics—people, places, descriptions—to a sense that everything remains just a little off-balance. “Born to a Family” has one of the neatest openings in their catalog, “Born to a family/ A family of workers/ Born to a family/ Of honest works.” It uses that specific and complementary start not to, as might be expected, deliver some sort of blue-collar encomium, nor does it trace the line of an art-school kid getting out his factory-based destiny. It fits somewhere in between, simply stating a place in the world, finding a knowing peace in identity.
“Boundary Rider” returns to the place of McLennan’s “Cattle and Cane” and “Black Mule.” He tracks a “Boundary rider on the five-mile fence” above a loping guitar line. The smell of a wet saddle comes through the speakers, drifting with thoughts of missed chances turned to resolution and new directions. “To know yourself,” McLennan sings, “is to be yourself.” Through the doubt and the misdirection of the album comes a confidence brought via self-awareness in both resistance and acceptance.
The two founders and permanent members of the Go-Betweens, McLennan and Forster, fit their personalities together into a unified whole. While McLennan rides the range and pummels through, Forster sits and reflects, reminiscing over a notebook and committing to never conforming. Both songwriters reach for depth without caving to anything saccharine. On Oceans Apart, their approaches congeal into unity. They make it sound so easy, which remains one of the most remarkable aspects of their art.