The Evangelist by singer and songwriter Robert Forster is his first solo recording in 11 years. It may not be a record he ever planned to make at all after the unexpected death of Grant McLennan, his collaborator for over 25 years in the Go Betweens. The band had released and was on tour for Oceans Apart, a masterpiece surpassed only by 16 Lovers Lane, if at all. Forster and McLennan had begun writing a new Go Betweens album in 2006, when McLennan passed away in his sleep from natural causes just shy of his 47th birthday. Three of the songs on this album were co-written by the pair and contain McLennan's final lyrics. That said, The Evangelist is not an elegy or a conscious homage to McLennan. The remaining Go Betweens -- bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson -- make up the core band, with a small string section arranged by Audrey Riley (who did them for the Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express). Pianist Seamus Beaghen lends a hand on keyboards. Mark Wallis and Dave Ruffy produced The Evangelist. So is this a Go Betweens record without McLennan? No, but it's close, and it is certainly a new brand of Forster solo album.
Forster's writing here is quite different than on his previous offerings. Always a poetic writer, his allusions, metaphors, cultural archetypes, and literary aspirations -- which appeared in his solo material and sometimes in the Go Betweens' as well, but the latter's were always tempered by McLennan's earthy approach -- are all but absent on The Evangelist. Instead, Forster has never been this direct before, so unadorned and honest, and yes, vulnerable without the mask of his gift to weave a story, even in first person, and make himself seem a narrator. These songs are conversational; they express what the protagonist is feeling as a way of opening a dialogue with the listener. The Evangelist is not an elegy or simply some tawdry memorial, but it is a living testament to the influence and camaraderie McLennan brought to Forster's life and work.
The ten-song, 40-minute set begins with "Let It Rain," introduced by the sound of a small chord of a droning Casio. Electric guitar chords shimmer and softly ring into the foreground slowly and deliberately. As the bassline all but whispers in the backdrop, Forster opens his mouth and unlocks the door to everything that follows: "If it rains, now we'll change/We'll hold and save all of what came/We won't let it run away/...If it rains/different this time/We won't break the chain or make our own rain/We'll just take what came/If it rains. We'll worship again...We'll be thankful for what came..." An acoustic guitar and the sound of a thunderstorm eclipse the electric one, and suddenly, it just ends. It's a gentle manifesto, not an anthem.
"Demon Days," one of the songs written with McLennan, is almost purely his. It looks sadly and tenderly into the void. It is tempting to read this as perhaps an unwilling goodbye. That said, it's actually a simple look at being middle-aged with the nagging feeling that "something's not right/something's gone wrong." Here Forster's enunciation shapeshifts, allowing for McLennan's voice in the tune to come through clearly, illustrated by strings, acoustic guitars, a celeste, piano, and a contrabass and the final underscoring of a gentle, pop-laden backing chorus of hushed voices. It's deeply effective, sad beyond belief, but Forster's ability to channel his late friend's manner of acceptance as a natural part of the baggage of life is remarkable, and deeply moving. He shifts gears immediately with "Pandanus," one of the finest tracks he's ever written. It's got a midtempo, elegant rock hook, accompanied by Adele and Glenn: this is a Go Betweens song if ever there was one, with a shimmering Beach Boys-styled backing chorus and a stridently graceful, unforced articulation of the melody which lets his lyrics just fall into the listener's lap: "...I love the shades of nightfall, the faded blues and grays/The silver on the water, seems to push so many things away, all away..." "Did She Overtake You" is one of those trademark busted love songs, where the potential for bliss is lost and covered over by the reality of not paying close enough attention to one's beloved. The narrator is asking the protagonist a question, and with layers of guitars a winding bass and simple kit drums, the only answer that comes is a sigh. The title track is so gorgeous it seems like a sin to even discuss it. It's among Forster greatest confessionals, that as it accepts responsibility and atones for its presumption and ignorance, and allows for the possibility of transformation because, if it's not to late, the protagonist can actually hear the voice of his Beloved's heart. The strings and acoustic guitar with that lilting piano line make it one of the most breathtaking moments on the disc. McLennan wrote the chorus on "Let Your Light In, Babe," and it's obvious. It's a jaunty, sunny pop stroll with the Go Betweens and Gill Morley on violin. Forster took the chorus and wrote the entire song in McLennan's musical and even lyrical vernacular. The same goes for "It Ain't Easy," the hardest rocking cut on the set. Its jangling guitars and run-on lines are a wonderful combination of McLennan's rocked up pop and Forster's ability to tell a story, resolved in every chorus by Grant's return to the basics. Here again, this is a Go Betweens tune with help from Morley on violin and Seamus on the B-3. Forster's "From Ghost Town," with Adele on backing vocals, closes the album. It's a long-winding sad story, played on the piano with string accompaniment -- the arrangement is glorious. It's the song Forster has perhaps written for McLennan but maybe there are others in it, too. It's very sad, extremely lost and confused but the line: "It's strong: yes, yes, yes, what we made for a thousand years/It will not fade/No, no. no . . " It's a breathless and devastating way to end a record, to be sure, but it's far from depressing.
If anything, The Evangelist reveals Forster's conviction to just go on and make music, even if it's just this one recording (though given its quality and the empathic presence of the remaining Go Betweens, you hope not). If it's an album of closure, then it is a way to wrap the package with a beautiful bow rather than letting it sit there like an open wound and be wasted away by the weight of time. Yet somehow, there is little finality here, and just an abundance of brilliant, emotionally communicable and translatable, adult pop music that does its best to practice acceptance and find beauty as one goes on living and creating even in the face of life -- altering tragedy. Bittersweet and poignant, The Evangelist is Robert Forster's most fully realized, seamless, and masterfully articulated solo record yet.