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Grant McLennan : the solo career of the Go-Betweens singer-songwriter
Life after The Go-Betweens
Arguably Australia's finest, and most cruelly neglected, band, The Go-Betweens initially split in the last month of the 1980s, exhausted by constant touring and meagre commercial returns, despite constant critical acclaim.
The songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, used to sharing space on Go-Betweens albums, embarked on solo careers. McLennan had a handful of songs ready to record, leftovers from the last band sessions.
Unsurprisingly, the poignantly-titled Watershed (1991) has more than a few echoes of the band. Breezy, melancholic pop had been McLennan's forte throughout the 80s, and When Word Gets Around, Haven't I Been A Fool? and Easy Come, Easy Go, were as airily catchy as any of his previous classic non-hits.
Perhaps McLennan tried a little too hard to replicate Robert Forster's edginess on the weaker tracks. Sally's Revolution is a muddled experiment that might have been better left in the lab. Ruminative reflection came easier and the irresistible Stones For You has that plain vulnerability that McLennan had been honing since the unforgettable Dusty In Here on the second Go-Betweens album. Overall, Watershed was a fine start to the 90s, although still obviously haunted by the ghosts of the Go-Betweens.
Fireboy (1993) proved that McLennan's songwriting muse wasn't deserting him. The strident openers Lighting Fires and Surround Me were up-tempo classic pop laden with the sort of melodic hooks that would make them timeless hits in some alternative universe where public taste and discernment were more noticeable.
McLennan's attempts to break out of his comfort zone had mixed results. Attempts to get angry on Whose Side Are You On? were unconvincing. The Pawnbroker was an eight minute, mostly spoken-word experiment, slightly reminiscent of River of Money from the Go-Betweens Spring Hill Fair album. It was a confused and melodramatic piece in which rather too much was made of a pair of white shoes.
The decicious gospel pastiche of Bathe In The Water was far more successful, a perfect blend of tune, dynamics and affecting lyric. The album highlight is Fingers, a brooding, piano-driven ballad of regret and longing that might just be the best song (and performance) of McLennan's solo career.
Horsebreaker Star (1994) is McLennan's most satisfying and enjoyable solo album, and intriguingly it's his most definitive break from the sound of the Go-Betweens. He hasn't so much found a sound of his own as borrowed the clothes of alt-country, a wardrobe that nestles in between rootsier REM and trad bluegrass. It's a substantial shift for a Queensland man, but McLennan pulls it off with a winning grin. That's all the more remarkable when you consider that McLennan recorded all these songs in nine days, with Georgia musicians and a producer, John Keane, that he had never previously met.
There's a lot of music here, especially on the original 24-track double CD release. The quality rarely dips though, from the delirious and funny opening pop sally of Simone & Perry to the final title track. An air of freedom and artistic enjoyment characterises the whole album, the playing, the relaxed singing, the way McLennan's easy and unremarkable voice meshes with Syd Straw's prominent backing vocals. Coming Up For Air , which seems to allude to his creative partnership with Forster, was both pretty and moving. Hot Water , Girl In a Beret , and Put You Down are instantly appealing country pop songs, all nagging choruses, breathy vocals, sighing strings. You'll keep coming back to find new detail in this rich collection of songs.You can't imagine much of this material being performed by the Go-Betweens, which alone makes it McLennan's most significant solo record.
In Your Bright Ray (1997) took McLennan back to more familiar territory. In retrospect it's tempting to see it as McLennan revisiting the Go-Betweens sound of 16 Lovers Lane , with aching, lovelorn pop following the template of the sweet and poignant title track opener. It's his most Australian-sounding album, suffused with a Brisbane or Sydney vibe on tracks like Sea Breeze , Lamp By Lamp and One Plus One . Comet Scar is the album's standout, demonstrating McLennan's gift for a swooning chorus and unforgettable melody.
McLennan found other outlets for his compositional and performance talents in a couple of collaboration projects, Jack Frost and Far Out Corporation, with unexceptional, but sporadically impressive results. There could only be one creative significant other though. By 2000, a decade had passed, Forster and McLennan rediscovered the joys of playing and recording together, and it was time to reconvene the Go-Betweens for three more albums that did not disgrace the canon.
Grant McLennan died of a heart attack on 6 May 2006. He was 48.