‘I read about your death in the paper, when I was buying tomato seed’. It’s hard not to turn a lyric like this in on its singer when you know he’s gone. Grant McLennan’s songs often suggested an unusually acute awareness of mortality, but he always threaded them with what it meant to be alive. ‘Been waking up early on Sundays watching my soil breathe.’
Intermission: the best of the solo recordings 1990-1997 is the result of Robert Forster and Grant hand-picking a baker’s dozen songs each from four times that number. The character of each disc is striking – if you knew nothing of Robert and Grant, you would never guess from this evidence that they grew up in the same group. Of course, those characters were already long-developed and contrasting by the time the first phase of the Go-Betweens came to an end, but the bond then was stronger than the difference, so that one could easily drop a vocal into the other’s song.
Had the solo works been songs on four extra Go-Betweens albums, Robert’s might have been softened and harmonised by Grant’s presence. Owing to Robert’s greater editorial and conceptual clarity, Grant’s songs could have been more focused, less affected by the sheen of a commercial production. I think Robert survived better than Grant as a former Go-Between, allowing looser inflections of country and country rock to infiltrate his music, and each album (bar the less than successful covers set) has a distinct feel. But throughout his attempts to produce the perfect song for FM radio, Grant retained his poetic sensibility, mourning the fragility of love, or celebrating its greatness and perfection.
Will Robert go on to make more solo records, inspired rather than haunted by the memory of his friend and foil? The signs are that he will. Meanwhile, he has become a prize-winning critic in Australia, writing about Dylan and the Shins for the Monthly, which also published his tribute to Grant, ‘A true hipster’ two months after McLennan’s death in May 2006. In it Robert says that when they met he was ‘falling into music’, while Grant’s obsession was film. ‘We became Godard and Truffaut. Brisbane didn’t know it at the time, but there were two 19-year-olds driving around in a car who thought they were French film directors.’
The ‘acoustic stories’ part of the That striped sunlight sound DVD also illuminates their partnership, with conversation between the pair and great untreated versions of some of their best songs. Grant begins to lose his voice halfway through the session, recorded the day after the Brisbane show also filmed for the disc. You feel for him, a man forever stretching, yearning, reaching for artistic highs and heights. A man very much alive.