Australian singer and songwriter Robert Forster is an artist seemingly forever relegated to cult status. The Go-Betweens' co-founder has kept a relatively low profile as a recording artist. Since his 1990 solo debut Danger in the Past, he has issued a total of seven albums including Inferno, his first in four years and second in 11. He is also a journalist and author and has appeared as an actor and narrator in films. Forster accepts his role with aplomb. He's hardly a prolific songwriter -- by his own admission, he writes only two or three songs a year that he likes enough to record.
Inferno was cut in Berlin with producer/engineer Victor Van Vugt (PJ Harvey, Beth Orton and Nick Cave) whom he worked with on Danger in the Past. Forster's quintet cut these nine songs mostly live from the studio floor. He brought back bassist/organist Scott Bromley and violinist/vocalist/wife Karin Bäumler, and new players such as drummer Earl Havin (Tindersticks) and pianist Michael Mühlhaus (Blumfeld). Some of these songs date back a few years such as the killer opener "Crazy Jane & the Day of Judgment," whose words are by William Butler Yeats; it was performed live in Dublin in 2013 at the poet's 150th birthday celebration. "No Fame" is a slinky slice of Go-Betweens-esque guitar pop that embraces his cult-like station in life with verve, and adds a manifesto in the last verse that seems to have guided his career path all along. There are some fine rockers here such as "Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)" that touches on the Velvet Underground's "I’m Waiting for the Man" and Mott the Hoople's "All the Way to Memphis" complete with Jerry Lee Lewis-esque pumping piano vamp. The verse in "Remain" -- one of his best narrative tunes -- recalls the structure of "Sweet Jane," to boot. Forster's signature ballads are here too, such as "This Morning" with its matter-of-fact gratitude: "It's a new day, another night that I’ve survived/My dreams have chased me to this place where I've arrived/The sun's at the door/The morning is a friend ...." Immediately following is the bittersweet narrative "Life Has Turned a Page," with its skewed bossa nova vibe accompanying Forster's erudite guitar pop lyricism. "I'm Gonna Tell It" also borrows a bit from the Velvets' two-chord guitar swagger in a bold love song. But the ballads achieve their own equanimity with the shimmering "I'll Look After You" and the haunting "One Bird in the Sky" with its strident, perfectly realized self-imposed exile. Inferno is among Forster's strongest collections. Its songs are delivered with wry wit, subtle yet biting insight, and unpretentious poetic language. Combined with elegant, understated melodies that intuit rather than insist, this is a set of tunes that affirms life with earthy wisdom, vulnerability, and steely determination.