“The shortest distance between two points is under construction.”
- Noelie Altito
“We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.”
- Bob Dylan
“Oceans Apart” is the ninth album by the Go-Betweens. Ask Robert Forster why, and he appears to consider the question for the first time. “That’s a Grant title,” he shrugs. “It could mean something about our personalities, or the time we’ve spent moving around the world. Or it could be the name of a bar ‘round the corner from the recording studio. Take your pick.”
Fair enough. As Forster and McLennan’s 28-year-old brand name has always inferred, the essence of the Go-Betweens lies somewhere betwixt definable points: separate lives, separate thoughts, separate pens and separate voices that mysteriously entwine into one of rock’n’roll’s most intriguing threads.
Produced by Mark Wallis (“16 Lovers Lane”, The Smiths, Talking Heads, Travis, U2) “Oceans Apart” finds the two great Australian songwriters at their most inspired and adventurous, their breadth of combined experience enhancing a vista of hugely evocative imagery and newfound sonic invention.
“In some ways I think it’s cool that we had that break – ‘the solo years’ I think they’re called now,” Grant says with a chuckle. “It’s meant we’re not burnt out. And that really shows on this record.
“I like the way every song is completely in its own world. Everything about the Go-Betweens is really well put on this record. All those elements are there, but to me they sound new. It’s the Go-Betweens now.”
It’s 16 years since the twisting tale of the Go-Betweens reached its first logical conclusion. Their first six albums of ’81 to ‘88 are enshrined in a unique space among rock’s most revered cult bands: enigma intact, artistry undisputed and hits acknowledged – most recently on the “Bella Vista Terrace” compile of ’99.
It was that retrospective that reunited Grant and Robert to recapture, with apparent effortlessness, the strange chemistry they’d first discovered as two Queensland University students with a mutual passion for film and American punk in 1978.
With numerous solo records and side projects behind them, they wrote and recorded “The Friends of Rachel Worth” in 2000, the first album of a reunion that was as unexpected as it was successful. Ecstatic critics queued among the largest international audiences of the band’s career.
Its follow-up, “Bright Yellow Bright Orange”, was equally acclaimed in 2003, bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson completing what is now the most stable of the Go-Betweens’ many line-ups. For the third album of their second life, Forster and McLennan opted for a different kind of change.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always see London as a centre for music,” says Robert. “It’s a very competitive scene. Records made there will have a certain drive and power and newness to them.”
On a brief trip there in June ’04, the band tested the water with their old colleague Mark Wallis. The result would be the album’s first single, Here Comes A City, a song that instantly announces the evolution of the Go-Betweens in striking terms.
“When I heard it,” Robert enthuses, “it was like the Stones hearing Satisfaction. That’s how big it was. We’ve never sounded like that, but it’s us. Almost like it’s REALLY us. To me, at this stage, to come up with a song as punchy, as frantic and as well-written as that, that was enormously important for me.”
“We wanted to make a record that upped the ante a bit, took a few more risks,” adds Grant. “After the gentleness and mystery of ‘Rachel Worth’ and the live band experience of ‘Bright Yellow’, I thought it would be great to make a really produced, hi-fi record. As Adele kept saying, ‘We’re making an English Pop Record’ now.”
With nine more songs selected, the Go-Betweens returned to London in November ’04. The album sessions with Mark Wallis and his studio partner Dave Ruffy were among the most demanding and meticulous of their career.
“Personally, I’ve never worked so hard on a record,” says Grant. “Mark really pushes you as a guitar player and as a singer and I’m glad he did. I kept on thinking Geez, this is ‘Abbey Road’! And that happens it be my favourite Beatles record, too,” he adds with a laugh.
From the first two songs, it’s evident that ‘Oceans Apart’ is such a record, one of extreme divergences and complete unity, conflicting personalities in perfect harmony. Robert’s Here Comes A City is urban, urgent, immediate, literal, energetic. Grant’s Finding You is pastoral, chiming, reflective, wistful, beautiful.
Between them is the genius of the Go-Betweens writ as bold and large as ever. The clipped, open-book autobiography of Robert’s Born To A Family and Darlinghurst Nights balances the ethereal metaphors and veiled visions of Grant’s extraordinary Statue and classic, romantic pop of This Night’s For You .
Then again, how to define Grant’s enigmatic late addition, Boundary Rider; or Robert’s deceptively simple song about a girl, Lavender? “It’s reggae folk!” he insists. “It’s a whole new genre!”
For all its deep-rooted, almost nostalgic familiarity, “Oceans Apart” redefines and reaffirms the nebulous heart of the Go-Betweens yet again. “Well, it’s an odd-numbered record,” Grant offers knowingly. “Historically, the even-numbered ones tend to be bit more homogenised, the even ones are a little more out there.”