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Robert Forster Gets Playful — And Intense — On 'Inferno'


This is FRESH AIR. Robert Forster is probably best-known as the co-leader of the critically acclaimed Australian band The Go-Betweens, which released its last studio album in 2003. Forster has maintained an active solo career, and rock critic Ken Tucker says his new album, titled "Inferno," contains some fascinating observations about success and failure.


ROBERT FORSTER: (Singing) The jungle is coming up to the door. The birds that are calling are hard to ignore. The heat of the morning...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In the video for that song, Robert Forster is outside, mowing a lawn in the summer heat. He's wearing a black suit and a white shirt. He's tall and slim, an elegant, silver-haired man in his early 60s singing to the camera with a fierce frown. The song is called "Inferno (Brisbane In Summer)," and this native Australian is being playful yet intense. It's a mood that fits much of this album.


FORSTER: (Singing) My mother hangs the washing and my father has jobs to ignore. The weekend that has come is the same as the weekend before. And if I bust out and the highway is really the key, everyone can follow, everyone can overtake me. I don't need no fame. I don't need no fame.

TUCKER: That's "No Fame," one of three songs on this album that address creative success and commercial failure. The song is the reverie of a young man who's rejecting the settled lives of his parents, striking out on his own. He talks about writing a novel or doing something - anything that'll leave a mark on the world. He insists, I don't need no fame. It's difficult to believe him. Forster picks up this notion of finding one's place in the world in a subsequent song called "Remain."


FORSTER: (Singing) There was a time, there was a time that I've known when my work, when my films just weren't shown. Big city screens, big city dreams remain. I did my good work while knowing it wasn't my time. Sometimes, this world...

TUCKER: In "Remain," Forster speaks in the voice of another neglected artist, a filmmaker this time whose movies haven't been hits. I did my good work while knowing it wasn't my time, he sings over a lovely guitar and violin melody. There's a wistfulness here, a looking back. Along with his fellow songwriter Grant McLennan, Forster led The Go-Betweens starting in the 1990s, a superb rock band that was a modest success overseas. In this country, not even that, I'm afraid. McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006. "Inferno" is Forster's seventh solo album. He'd started doing independent projects while still with The Go-Betweens.


FORSTER: (Singing) I've got a story. I'll tell it to someone - full of the things that have happened to me, love. It's in my head. It's in my head. And I'm gonna tell it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tell it for sure.

FORSTER: (Singing) I'm gonna tell it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tell it some more.

FORSTER: (Singing) I'm gonna tell it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tell it for sure.

FORSTER: (Singing) I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna - people get love...

TUCKER: At one point on that song, called "I'm Gonna Tell It," Forster says people fall down mid-career and then blow it. He knows there are all sorts of careers, that what counts is doing the work. Forster is bookish and literary. The new album contains an adaptation of a William Butler Yeats poem. And you'd do well to read Forster's 2017 memoir, one of the best rock biographies ever, called "Grant And I: Inside And Outside The Go-Betweens." Forster is a very fine pop musician. He's spent four decades proving it. And with this album, "Inferno," he's telling you quite confidently that he has nothing left to prove.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Robert Forster's new album, "Inferno." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic and writer John Mulaney. His comedy special "Kid Gorgeous" is streaming on Netflix. He's a former writer for "Saturday Night Live," and he's returned twice to host. He's also one of the voices on the animated series "Big Mouth." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


FORSTER: (Singing) I'm late. There's no one I can see. They've gone and left the scene for me. There's little on the bones, just some dust and stones, nothing no one owns. They carried what they could. They told me what was good and are gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.