Received wisdom has it that cover albums are to be approached with great caution and low expectations. And it did indeed take me some time to convince myself to get I Had A New York Girlfriend. But Forster being one of my favourite songwriters, this had to happen sooner or later.
I strongly believe that the dissolution of The Go-Betweens in 1990 was one of the most inevitable, reasonable and (I suspect) friendliest break-ups in rock music history. Two songwriters this good, this self-sufficient just had to start releasing solo records. At some point every admirer of The Go-Betweens is bound to ask himself the following question: who’s the better songwriter, McLennan or Forster? Forster or McLennan? Well, I would say Grant had more tunes in him (plus, the Jack Frost project) but when Robert’s songs hit me, they hit me harder.
The latter notion definitely holds true for Robert Forster’s solo career in the 90s. But where Danger In The Past was brilliant from start to finish, meandering records like Calling From A Country Phone and Warm Nights were remarkably inconsistent. They did have their share of blinding classics (“Beyond Their Law”, “Warm Nights”), but whenever I hear those albums I get a feeling Robert had to grind them out. And that at the time when Grant was literally dripping with tunes and managed to come up with his effortless, fantastic double LP Horsebreaker Star.
So I Had A New York Girlfriend makes perfect sense. A cover album, it definitely signifies the fact that Robert wasn’t on a songwriting roll. It’s always tempting to regard cover albums as secondary and largely unimportant (and Forster himself later claimed that he shouldn’t have recorded it in the first place), so I was surprised when I Had A New York Girlfriend turned out to be such a revelation.
First of all, the song choice is immaculate. Robert didn’t select a single song he couldn’t make his own. In fact, certain songs here (some relatively little known) in parts recall Forster’s (for instance, I hear distinct echoes of “Karen” in this version of Keith Richards’ “Locked Away”). You can feel Robert did know his way around these songs. There’s the dramatic “Nature’s Way” with effective female backup vocals; there’s a great take on Dylan’s wistful, countrified “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”; there’s even the infectious pop of “Here Comes Tomorrow” that sounds every bit as jaunty and juicy as The Monkees’ version. My personal favourite would probably be the aforementioned “Locked Away” with its tasteful violin (by Warren Ellis!) and Robert’s cold yet heartbreaking vocal delivery he has always been so good at.
Interestingly, the album ends on a very pessimistic note. And as if Mickey Newbury’s classic piece of loneliness “Frisco Depot” weren’t enough, Robert finishes things off with the lovely, suicidal “3 AM”. Sounds like the journey’s complete.
So this turns out to be a classic Robert Forster experience. Fresh, inventive, and confident, the record was followed in 1996 by the hard job that was Warm Nights. And in 2000 the long-awaited reunion happened. Actually, one of the most inevitable, reasonable and, hell, greatest reunions I’m aware of. Too sad it had to end that way.