73. Grant McLennan, Horsebreaker Star
By the time Grant McLennan released the album Horsebreaker Star, there were a healthy number of years that had passed since the demise of his band the Go-Betweens. Between the formal break-up, in December 1989, and this album, McLennan released two other solo outings, so there’s no real reason to characterize Horsebreaker Star as some unique statement of purpose, an announcement about his determination for enduring creative relevance. And yet that’s exactly what the record seems like, both in its content and through a few more superficial indicators (it’s the first solo album on which he’s billed as Grant McLennan rather than G.W. McLennan, and it’s a double disc release). The album also commits fully to the style of smart, finely crafted pop that the performer had perfected with his cohorts in the Go-Betweens, and nothing could have been more out of step with the prevailed, grunge-soaked sound of mid-nineties alternative music.
McLennan’s label seemed to know what a hard sell they had. Though constructed as a double album — and a double album in the era when artists were overjoyed to utilize every extra minute afforded them by CD releases, still fairly new as the standard for music — Atlantic knocked about a half-dozen songs of the stateside release, so certain tracks, such as the jaunty “Late Afternoon in Early August,” never would have crossed the 90FM airwaves at the time. (They also omitted McLennan’s take on “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which is odd considering the labels loved pitching covers, especially quasi-ironic ones, at college radio.) The pruning doesn’t seem especially strategic. Surely it was little more than queasiness over trying to market such an overstuffed album from a marginally known performer that motivated the choices.
The promotion gurus probably didn’t know what to do with this anyway. “What Went Wrong” opens with a yearning melody that makes it sound like a Fleetwood Mac song is about to break out (the recurring lyrics “Lovers/ Livin’ on what went wrong” also make it seem like the lost mission statement for Rumours), and “Race Day Rag,” a plunky little instrumental that’s the very definition of “amiable.” McLennan’s style might be exemplified by the moving ease of “Coming Up for Air,” (“I know that I can get sentimental, my friend/ But I just listened to those songs you sent/ Really loved the one about those L.A. freaks/ Did it take a day to write or was it weeks?”), which comes across the songwriter relaxing into his existence like it’s an easy chair. It’s smart and lovely and almost impossible to imagine pressed up against Eddie Vedder’s chronic over-singing on the radio.
Then again, what does it matter if McLennan was following his muse instead of playing the game. The Go-Betweens made great albums, but they weren’t trendy either. The strongest tracks on the album are justification enough. “Dropping You” turns the breakup song into a declaration of triumph (“The best thing I ever did/ Was dropping you”) and “I’ll Call You Wild” anticipates the regionally-driven ruminations of Father John Misty, albeit with the wistfulness in place of the later performer’s savagely sardonic cynicism. Then there’s “Keep My Word,” which agreeably sounds like a first pass at “Finding You,” the great song from the final Go-Betweens album (they reunited, because of course they did) that stands as one of the most beautiful compositions McLennan ever signed his name to.
McLennan died in 2006, succumbing to a heart attack. He was forty-eight. He left a tremendous body of work, with the Go-Betweens and on his own. Horsebreaker Star is as good a introduction to his artistry as any.
I like to think the solid showing of this album on the chart is a remnant of my own time at the station. More specifically, it’s a hangover from the stretch when my dear friend and roommate’s enduring pride in his Irish heritage meant that every band hailing from the Emerald Isle got a little heartier push at the station. That was especially true when he was the Music Director, but enough of his peers (myself included) were always happy to seek out those group for generous spins out of solidarity. A House had a major hit at the station during my first year there, with the song “Call Me Blue.” It remained a longtime go-to for deejays with mediocre time management skills who needed something short and energizing to help them time up to AP Network News at the top of the house. Wide-Eyed and Ignorant was the band’s fourth album. The lead single, “Here Come the Good Times,” was apparently repurposed a few years later as a rallying anthem for the Republic of Ireland national football team in the lead-up to the 2002 World Cup.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom