Essential New Music: Robert Forster’s “The Candle And The Flame”

Circumstances shape how art is made and how it’s perceived. So it is with the circumstances surrounding The Candle And The Flame. In 2021, Robert Forster stood ready to make his follow-up to Inferno, the excellent album that had occasioned his splendid return to world stages in 2019. He wasn’t rushing things, since he was also working on a novel, and the pandemic was still inducing periodic lockdowns in some Australian cities. It was supposed to be a year in which he got things done.

But then Forster’s wife, Karin Bäumler, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This might have been a good reason to scrap everything, except that Bäumler and Forster had always played music together. Their grown kids (both musicians) and neighborhood friend/former Go-Betweens bassist Adele Pickvance pitched in, joining living-room sessions that provided respite from the rigors of Bäumler’s treatment. When Bäumler was feeling well enough, they nipped into a studio and recorded the arrangements that they’d worked out together. These intimate, barely adorned recordings became The Candle And The Flame. If you have followed Forster’s work, on his own and with the Go-Betweens, you already know just enough production and nothing more suits him best.

It would be tempting to perceive songs with titles like “It’s Only Poison” and “There’s A Reason To Live” or lines like “I can’t live without her” (from “Tender Years”) as more circle-the-wagons responses to Bäumler’s cancer. Tempting, but wrong, since they had already been written. Only “She’s A Fighter,” the uncharacteristic two-line rave-up that starts The Candle And The Flame, was penned after the diagnosis. It’s the following song, “Tender Years,” that sets the tone. It finds Forster looking back at his life with Bäumler, savoring what they have enjoyed and looking forward to more. Forster came into 2021 keenly aware of what a lucky guy he was, and he was happy to share this awareness in song. 

Memory, in one way or another, has been at the heart of Forster’s writing for some time. Sometimes, as on “It’s Only Poison,” it tells you where you should no longer linger. Other times, as when Forster finds an old ticket stub in the pocket of clothing that’s been hung up since lockdown began (“There’s A Reason To Live”), it tells him what he might envision for the future. On the grand summation of album-closing “When I Was A Young Man,” it reminds him how he did it all. Forster looks back and forward in language so simple, he makes it sound easy. That’s what masters of their craft do. On The Candle And The Flame, he’s still at the top of his game—and deeply aware of who has helped him get and stay there.

—Bill Meyer