Robert Forster and Grant McLennan were two months into writing the next Go-Betweens album when on May 6th 2006, Grant McLennan died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48. An indescribable blow to Australian music, McLennan’s death was felt worldwide, and while we mourned his loss, attention turned to Forster in sympathy and uncertainty, wondering what, if anything, he would do next.
A lifetime spent working in song is hard to deny, and with much respect for what they had achieved together, Forster carried on writing anew, intent on finishing the songs they were working on when McLennan passed, and paying tribute to his memory. The Evangelist is the sum total of his efforts, and as solo albums go, it isn’t as solo as it seems. Long-time Go-Betweens collaborators, Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson were called to augment the tunes and much like the final Go-Betweens album Oceans Apart, it was produced by Mark Wallis and Dave Ruffy at Good Luck Studios in South London. Forster went as far as calling in the services of Audrey Riley who had done the string arrangements on the fantastic Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express to add her touch, and with all the pieces there in place, it’s very hard to look at The Evangelist other than being a Go-Between’s album without Grant.
Opener “If It Rains” is decidedly downbeat, Forster’s voice plaintive yet strong, conjuring a vision of hope and faith against the times. “Demon Days” was a song that McLennan had begun and left unfinished, and a song that Forster wanted to record the most. Forster added the final verse, and the lines “The half whispered hopes/The dreams that we smoked/Puffed up and ran/As only dreams can” celebrates their friendship. Several of the tracks appear as tender eulogies to McLennan. There’s something in his voice in “Demon Days”, a melancholy of sorts that I don’t recall ever hearing on any of his recordings with strings adding a certain poignancy to the track.
It seems intentional that these two songs address change and loss, and with that in mind, Forster pulls back from the reminiscing blues and throws down a little rock and roll with “Pandanus”, one of Forster’s finest songs in years, spirited and lively, reminiscent of the guitar pop of Talullah. Title track “The Evangelist” was the first song Forster wrote after McLennan’s passing, it speaks of a love affair gone awry, Forster bringing a woman into his world and realising the error in his ways. The familiar brush drums and skiffle beat of “Let Your Light In, Babe” reminds you of that Go-Betweens sound, another of the tracks that McLennan had began and Forster finished, an indication of what the next Go-Betweens album could’ve been.
It’s hard to deny that measured against his past solo efforts, The Evangelist ranks up there with Danger in the Past. Having lost his partner, he’s found his muse and throughout the ten tracks, they find Forster in either a sombre, meditative mood, or in characteristically good spirits. His wit and penchance for throwing out offhand lyrics that border on the ridiculous remains thankfully unchanged, giving us the sublime “Life is art, art is life/But have you met my wife?” on “Don’t Touch Anything” complete with strings, piano and Hammond organ carrying along another comedic Forster performance.
“It Ain’t Easy” has another of those signature Pickvance country basslines, reminiscent of Oceans Apart track “Born to a Family” this time painting a fond portrait of McLennan “He picked me up when I might have slipped and not done a thing/A sly grin that played to win/We will not see his kind anymore.” Pickvance has more of a starring role on this album, and where you would be accustomed to hearing McLennan’s backing vocals, she has stepped in to fill that void. Closing track “From Ghost Town” has Forster alone on the piano, a violin playing off in the distance. It’s the poignant moment amongst an already poignant album.
The Evangelist is Forster’s way of honouring a friend. His wit and charm is still there, but as he sings in “From Ghost Town” “It’s all different now”. Forster’s a different man, and these are different times, but as long as he keeps on making music the spirit of The Go-Betweens lives on.