The Go-Betweens – Cattle and Cane (1983, Rough Trade)
Why It’s Perfect: Because I wouldn’t feel ashamed if this tune made me well up a little. Simply put, Cattle and Cane may be the single warmest song slice of pop ever written; it’s a song to smile to sadly. A song about personal memory and nostalgia, it also feels somehow generously open, as if your attention is not being demanded so much as allowed and welcomed. Much of its resonance is due to its hypnotic bassline, which manages to conjure a similar mix of bittersweet emotions as Peter Hook’s bass licks on New Order’s Ceremony, while also being appropriate to the rich setting conjured by lyricist Grant McLennan. The song doesn’t stray far from its basic melody, but its subtle evolution is beautiful to behold, from the interplay of McLennan and Forster’s chiming guitars to those pristine moments when bassist Robert Vickers is allowed to wander up and down his frets. And over this quietly dense arrangement, what beautifully simple words:
“I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber,
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders.”
Like the better imagist poets, McLennan presents these fragments of memory without unnecessary affectation (both lyrically and vocally), and leaves the listener to decide what is meant as they trail off into the daisy-chain of wordless harmonies which serves as a chorus. Likewise, the mix is clear yet somehow muted, as if you’re hearing it through still water; in fact, the experience of the song is rather like drowsing in a relaxing bath, except without the risk of your naked, bloated corpse being discovered by your apartment super two weeks after you succumbed to a watery death. Although, if I had to go out like that, I would probably want to do it listening to this song.
Defining Moment: Vickers’ drowsy, lingering, aching licks during the bridge. Melancholy, thy name is bass.
Other Great Songs by The Go-Betweens: Australia’s Go-Betweens were arguably the most subtle and textured of jangle pop acts. Eschewing the self-conscious cleverness of The Smiths while skirting the overt artiness of R.E.M., they still managed at their best to be as seductively wistful as the former and as evocative as the latter. Even a short list of this band’s great songs would take ages, but checking out Clouds, Bachelor Kisses, The Ghost and the Black Hat and Streets of Your Town makes a start. And for those willing to try an album, I haven’t the words to explain my love for 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane.