Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Love Goes On!" /
The Go-Betweens

I suspect that, like a lot of artists I love, the Go-Betweens may require repeated listenings for their music to grab hold. I've always felt that, oh for example, the Kinks would be more famous if people heard their songs multiple times before having to decide whether they liked them. I know that "Autumn Almanac" or "Dead End Street" or "Shangri-La" -- three of my favorite Kinks tracks ever -- grew on me gradually. In the modern world of CDs and 30-second digital samples, it's way too easy for listeners to skip tracks they don't like the first time around, and never hear them again.

But my friend Dave promises me that the Go-Betweens are right up my alley. I'll admit I never heard of this Australian band ("Australia's greatest pop group ever," the iStore swears, which would be news to the BeeGees) either in their 80s heyday or when they reunited in the late 90s ( sadly, one of the group's two creative forces, Grant McLennan, died in 2006). But I trust Dave, so I'm working on it -- and this track is starting to haunt me.

"Love Goes On!" has a brisk pop energy, with a machine-gun acoustic guitar riff and percussive lyrics -- their sound is not quite New Wave, not quite power pop. But there's a darkness to the chords; the rhythm's edgy and agitated, and the melody skips around restlessly. So I put my ear to the speakers and focus on the lyrics, and what do I discover but a deep pool of ambivalence and ambiguity.

"There’s a cat in the alleyway / Dreaming of birds that are blue," he starts off poetically; "Sometimes girl when I’m lonely / This is how I think about you." So far, straightforward enough. But then he starts to veer sideways: "There are times that I want you / I want you so much I could bust" -- and that one word "bust" punctures the romantic illusion. "I know a thing about lovers," McLennan assures us; "lovers lie down in trust." The falling line of the melody makes me suspect that trust is in short supply in this relationship.

After defiantly proclaiming (twice) "Love goes on anyway!" in the chorus, McLennan warily adds in verse two "I know a thing about lovers / Lovers don’t feel any shame" and "I know a thing about darkness / Darkness ain’t my friend." This love affair sure seems out of whack, doesn't it? The strings, muted up to now, come out with a minor-key flourish in the bridge, overlaid with flamenco guitar, as he fiercely insists: "I’m gonna make you happy / I’m gonna spin you round / I’m gonna cut your strings." Talk about hostility.

In verse three, he goes all Terence Stamp on us: "Late at night when I want you / I lock you in my room / 'Cause I know a thing about darkness." You sure do, my friend. I love how he frames this all in the abstract -- this is the way "lovers" act, it has nothing to do with his own desperation, insecurity, and out-of-kilter appetite. "I know a thing about lovers," he notes at the end, "Lovers want the moon." Well, that's true; we do want the moon when we're in in love. Of course we almost never get it.

The more I listen, the more I notice how that perky guitar sounds like an obsessive tic; the repeated refrain gets neurotic; and the haze of backing strings and echoing harmonies perfectly evoke his anxiety. Man, if every Go-Betweens song is this smart and dark, I do have to make myself better acquainted with them.

Thanks, Dave.

Love Goes On! sample


Dave K. said...

Thanks Holly for the wonderful feature on the Go-Betweens. You really hit the nail on the head. Their music interweaves sunny melodies and great harmonies with dark and sometimes melancholy undercurrents. The Kinks comparison is also right on. Although a song like Shangri-La has a gorgeous melody, it won't bowl you over the first time you listen to it. It takes a little time and several listens to truly appreciate its magnificence. The Go-Betweens have been one of my musical obsession of the past few years. Thanks :-)

Holly A Hughes said...

I can see how they'd grow on you, Dave. But given the sad reality of the music biz, I'd never have found out about them if not for you. So thanks again!