Australian musician Robert Forster doesn’t mess around: the opening track to The Candle and the Flame, his eighth solo album, is “She’s a Fighter,” a brisk, slashing number led by his acoustic guitar and backed by his family, all musicians, on various instruments. The “she” of the album’s title is among them: His wife of many years, Karin. The lyric came to mind when she was first faced with a cancer diagnosis. For Forster, it’s all part of his own experience of art.
“I’m just following the changes in my life in a way,” he says. “It’s not like I’m trying to write as a 25-year-old, or I just turned off the material of my life when I was 40. I want to age with my material and my material ages with me. They can be other things where you just become aware of something, a feeling that has nothing to do with getting older.”
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Forster can speak with plenty of experience on this point. His own songwriting history reaches back to the 1970s and his famed partnership with Grant McLennan in the Go-Betweens. His familiar voice, at once dryly reserved and subtly emotional, continues to explore the intersection of elegantly propulsive rock pulse and singer-songwriter reflection into a new decade; The Candle and the Flame is his first post-COVID effort. Like so many of us, he found his way through these past few years in his own particular fashion.
“I’m not a technical person and I’m quite a private person, which is how I got into music in the first place,” he explains. “I need quietness and I need a certain amount of just around-the-house stability. If my work is good, if I’m writing good songs or I’m writing a good memoir or I’m writing good music journalism, if I’m playing good shows, I’ll just do that. I probably should be doing a lot more, but that works for me.”
That feeling of quiet focus is a hallmark of The Candle and the Flame, which boasts songs with a more country and folk flavor; Forster’s no one’s idea of an “Americana” artist, but he’s long showed interest in these forms, and the gentle touch of fiddle on “The Roads” and the brilliantly-titled “I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time” gestures deftly at those influences.
“Take a song like “Saginaw, Michigan” by Lefty Frizzell,” Forster says. “There’s a film in that: he has a relationship with a woman, he goes up to Alaska and finds the gold and he sells it to the woman’s father. That’s what attracted me first to country music: the lyrics. I was more heavy into it in the late ’80s, during the start of the ’90s, but it’s an abiding thing. When I wrote [‘I Don’t Do Drugs’], I went like, ‘This is a Johnny Cash song.’ That was the feel that I instantly heard with it—but with psychedelic lyrics. Just this sort of weird turn on it.”
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The Candle and the Flame isn’t solely retrospective, as proven by sweetly engaging songs like the chugging, spirited “Always” and “Tender Years,” for which Forster shot a wonderfully engaging video in his kitchen. But the ways that the past shapes the present is a theme regardless; “There’s a Reason” is based on finding an old ticket stub and thinking about the memories attached, and “When I Was a Young Man” is a deft self-portrait of the artist, saluting departed inspirations like Tom Verlaine, David Bowie, and Lou Reed.
As Forster says, referencing the song’s opening lyric, “’When I was a young man, like 21, I wrote songs. I was unsung,’ When I wrote that, I went, ‘Got it, got it.’ It’s right at the beginning, before all the strands and all the history and all of that comes in. Maybe I was just wanting to avoid that and go right back to this [starting] point. But it was a very easy song to write—I’ll always want to play the song on stage, because I really love it. It’s one of those songs where you go, ‘Was I good enough to write that?’”